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The Biden administration says it has a plan to bolster on-farm conservation, but some Western land advocates say it’s a con.

A few days after taking office, President Joe Biden announced a goal for the United States to conserve at least 30% of its lands and waters by 2030 — an idea known as 30 by 30.

And on May 6, the departments of Interior, Agriculture and Commerce released a broad plan for achieving the goal.

The agencies call for rewarding voluntary conservation efforts by farmers, expanding outdoor recreation opportunities, creating parks in impoverished neighborhoods, and supporting tribal environmental programs.

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Omaha World-Herald that, for the ag industry, 30 by 30 amounts to continued and potentially increased funding for on-farm conservation programs.

The report suggests strengthening those programs in the 2023 Farm Bill.

The document also repeatedly emphasizes support for agriculture and private property rights.

“The report goes out of its way to recognize the concerns raised by Farm Bureau and by agriculture in general,” said Sam Kieffer, vice president for public affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Those assurances haven’t stopped critics, particularly in the West, from continuing to brand 30 by 30 as a land grab.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has toured the state to raise opposition to the plan, saying it would take too much land out of production and undermine property rights.

Nebraska’s land is nearly all privately owned. According to Ricketts, that means the federal government would need a heavy-handed approach to get to 30% of land in conservation.

But protected lands vary greatly across states, from 80% in Nevada to 9% in Maryland, and the report focuses only on achieving 30% nationwide, not in each state.

Across the U.S., just 12% of land is protected in a natural state, but that number rises to 30% when including lands that are largely protected but still allow logging or mining, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In their report, the agencies are careful to focus on land “conservation” — not protection or preservation. They say the term is meant to affirm that multiple land uses, including working lands, can contribute to environmental quality.

Besides Ricketts, the top critics of 30 by 30 include rural radio host Trent Loos and the Texas-based American Stewards of Liberty. That group has roots in the Sagebrush Rebellion, a period of Western pushback against federal land policies.

No matter what comes of the 30 by 30 aspirations, Biden himself may not see the project through to completion. He will no longer be president by 2030, when the goals are intended to be met.


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