A right-wing, anti-federal lands group is leading a disinformation campaign against the Biden administration’s effort to protect 30% of America’s lands and oceans by 2030.
The “30×30” initiative aims to combat the dual climate and extinction crises and is backed by scientists, environmental groups and hundreds of state and local leaders. President Joe Biden set the national target in January, part of a rash of early environmental executive orders.
Since then, American Stewards of Liberty, a little-known Texas group with ties to both the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry, has worked to drum up opposition at the county and state level. It has characterized the proposal as a federal “land grab” ― before the Biden administration has even unveiled details about how it plans to achieve its goals ― and stoked fear in rural communities across the West and Midwest.
The Colorado Sun first reported on the opposition campaign last week, which includes holding “training sessions” on how to fight 30×30 and convincing local governments to pass prefabricated resolutions opposing it. To date, two dozen counties across nine states, including Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming, have adopted the organization’s model resolutions, according to a tally on American Stewards’ website. Another 11 counties have resolutions in the works.
In its “Guide to Fight the 30 x 30 Land Grab,” American Stewards of Liberty claims 30×30 is being “advanced by radical environmental activists” and is “an unconstitutional policy shift, moving us from a nation founded on private property principles to one controlled by the administrative state.”
American Stewards of Liberty says it is “dedicated to protecting private property rights, defending the use of our land, and restoring local control.” It was formed in 1992 when two conservative groups merged. One of those groups, Stewards of the Range, was established to defend Nevada ranchers Wayne and Jean Hage, who battled the Forest Service for years over unpermitted grazing on public lands, long before Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy made headlines and fueled an extremist militia movement.
Margaret Byfield, the Hages’ daughter, is the founder and executive director of American Stewards.
Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, two groups that received millions from the fossil fuel moguls Charles and David Koch and have funneled huge amounts of dark money to climate denial and other conservative causes, gave American Stewards at least $170,000 between 2015 and 2019, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
American Stewards also has ties to the Trump administration. Trent Loos, a Nebraska rancher and radio show host, served on former President Donald Trump’s agricultural advisory committee and is now helping lead the anti-30×30 campaign.
While the group has a history of fighting endangered species listings, its primary effort today appears to be rallying opposition to the Biden conservation goal. At one of its training sessions in South Dakota, an attendee told Byfield that 30×30 reminded him of the man-made famine that occurred in Ukraine during Soviet Union dictator Josef Stalin’s rule, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3.9 million people.
“I agree,” Byfield responded. “That’s what I see coming if we don’t stop it.”
“I can draw those parallels to the Ukraine,” Loos added. “I can draw those parallels to Hitler from ’33 to ’39. And history does repeat itself.”
A few members of Congress are falling for a disinformation campaign being run by Bundy family allies and conspiracy theorists.
Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities
Immediately after Byfield agreed that 30×30 is comparable to the Holodomor mass starvation event in Ukraine, Mark Haugen, a representative of Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), took the microphone and told the audience that Thune “opposes 30×30 absolutely with 100% of his being.”
Biden’s executive order clearly states that Cabinet officials will “solicit input from state, local, tribal, and territorial officials, agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, and other key stakeholders” as it plans this conservation work.
“This discussion surrounding 30×30 is really off-base,” Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters at an agriculture conference last week. “None of it involves taking over anyone’s land from them or using eminent domain. It’s not going to happen.”
Still, Republicans in Congress are parroting American Stewards’ anti-30×30 rhetoric. At a recent hearing to consider the nomination of Tommy Beaudreau, Biden’s choice for deputy interior secretary, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) said he is “very concerned about private property being seized” to meet the 30×30 goal.
“The idea of taking 30% of Kansas farmland and pastureland out of production would literally ruin, end the Kansas economy,” Marshall said. Marshall maintains a dismal 6% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters.
No one in the Biden administration has suggested seizing private property — something the Trump administration actually did to build its wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I think Sec. Haaland has been very clear that 30×30 is meant to be an inclusive approach to comprehensive conservation, which includes where you have willing private parties’ participation from private landowners in conservation,” Beaudreau told Marshall.
Michawn Rich, a spokesperson for Marshall, did not respond to HuffPost’s questions, including whether the senator has been in contact with American Stewards about this issue. Instead, she forwarded a letter that Marshall sent to Biden last month arguing that the executive order threatens private land ownership and U.S. food production.
“Considering there is just under 900 million acres of agricultural land in the United States, I must assume that agriculture will be a target of your initiative,” Marshall wrote. “It’s no secret that radical environmentalists have been using ‘climate change’ as a guise to lobby an aggressive change to American agricultural production practices.”
“I ask that you respect and acknowledge the private property rights of individuals so they may continue to have authority over what occurs on their property and have the freedom to produce an abundance of food, fuel, and fiber for the world,” he added.
Some of the language in Marshall’s letter is strikingly similar to that found on American Stewards’ website, which notes the group was founded “to help protect the continued use of our natural resources – the production of food, fiber and energy and access to the land – in the face of an increasing influence of the radical environmental agenda that is working to remove people from the landscape.”
Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Colorado-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities, told HuffPost it is “concerning, though perhaps not surprising, that a few members of Congress are falling for a disinformation campaign being run by Bundy family allies and conspiracy theorists.”
The good news, he added, is that 30×30 has overwhelming bipartisan support. A 2019 poll found that 85% of registered voters back the conservation target.
Rather than addressing the climate threat and protecting landscapes for future generations, Republicans “are siding with extremists hellbent on lining their own pockets at the expense of taxpayers and our environment,” said Kyle Herrig, president of watchdog group Accountable.US.
The conservative response to 30×30 is reminiscent of Republicans’ false claims that the Biden’s administration’s climate agenda will force Americans to reduce their consumption of burgers and other red meat ― another thing the White House has never proposed.
The effort to drum up outrage over 30×30 has come with some success. In addition to opposition at the county and state levels, Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday held an informal forum on 30×30. Most spent most of their time railing against “radical” and “extremist” environmentalists and painting the Biden administration’s conservation initiative as a secretive effort to “steal” and “lock up” public and private lands.
“The administration has failed to develop its policy beyond a catchy tagline,” Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), the committee’s ranking Republican, said during the event. “We, like most everyone else, are left with even more questions.”
It is true that the initiative is short on details so far. The Interior Department sent a report with its recommendations to the White House last week, but the findings have so far not been made public. White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy is leading a task force that is currently reviewing the report, E&E News reported, and details are expected to be released as soon as this week.
The White House did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. An Interior Department official simply reiterated that the 30×30 effort will not propose taking away private property.
None of that is likely to calm Republican nerves. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who has introduced an amendment to nullify Biden’s executive order section on 30×30, said at Tuesday’s forum that the initiative is being pushed by “extremist environmentalists” and will “trample on property rights and extort private land.”
“You can dress a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it’s still a wolf,” she said. “You can polish — must I say — a turd, but it’s still a turd.”
Panelists at Tuesday’s forum, who were chosen entirely by GOP committee members, agreed that they’d like more specifics about how the administration would meet the conservation goal.
“One of our biggest concerns is the unknown,” said Greg Chilcott, a commissioner in Ravalli County, Montana. “Until we have this defined, it’s hard for us to really clarify and clearly identify the impacts to outdoor pursuits and to our economy.”
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