Not long ago the Secretary of Agriculture announced a bold initiative that would cut the environmental footprint of US agriculture in half by the year 2050. The date was Feb. 20, 2020. The cabinet official was the Trump administration’s Sonny Perdue. Gov. Pete Ricketts had little if anything to say about the ambitious “New Innovation Initiative for USDA” at the time, even though its objectives included radical goals for “conserving sensitive and marginal lands to enhance carbon sinks”. The governor’s wait-and-see approach at that time seemed prudent as details of the Initiative were to be hammered out through stakeholder input.
Fast forward to May 2021. Before the ink was dry on the signed—and unsigned—bills passed in this Unicameral session, the governor was barnstorming across rural Nebraska stirring up opposition and spreading fear over a similar proposal from the Biden Administration called the “30 x 30 plan”—which sets a goal to conserve 30% of America’s land by 2030. In the news release announcing his anti-30 x 30 Town Halls, Gov. Ricketts opened with vague platitudes to Nebraska farmers before cutting to the chase noting that, “aside from vague platitudes (Biden) has not revealed how he intends to implement the plan.” He then goes on to correctly point out that the president has no constitutional authority to conserve land and water by himself.
By the governor’s own admission, his message to rural Nebraska rests upon these two pillars of truth—we have no idea what the 30 x 30 plan would entail, and the president cannot implement it even if he wanted to. From there, presumably using his or someone’s imagination to fill in the many blanks, the governor arrives at the only possible conclusion—30 x 30 is an illegal land grab by a radical, socialist government. Scary stuff—if it were true. What is known for certain, according to the announcement and Secretary Vilsack himself is “respecting private property rights and supporting voluntary stewardship efforts are critical to helping us reach our goal of conserving 30% of lands and waters by 2030.”
The conservation goals in the 30 x 30 plan are no more ambitious that those in the New Innovation Initiative. The recognition by both the former and current Secretaries of Agriculture for the need to conserve more land should be seen as a unifying aspiration, especially since these policies are grounded on voluntary signup of private property owners. There is no taking. The United States is already conserving 12% of its land through the benefit of existing programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program--the result of bipartisan legislation that appropriately pays farmers to remove marginal cropland from production, and/or enhanced conservation practices on our nation’s working lands. Expanding conservation acreage far above 12% is likely to require additional policies that go beyond increasing the investment in land set aside programs. That is why the Biden administration promised the details of the 30 x 30 plan would be…hammered out through stakeholder input.
As an elected official, the governor has an opportunity to educate and to help shape public opinion for the good of all Nebraskans. That opportunity carries with it an obligation to be honest and do no harm. We believe the governor is failing his leadership obligations with his misleading campaign against 30 x 30. He may realize political advantages by needlessly stirring up anger and fostering division, but the rest of us in Nebraska will almost certainly lose from his gains.
Although a large share of our nation’s land has individual owners, what happens on that land affects every American—a sentiment popularly expressed in Woodie Guthrie’s lyrics of “This Land is our Land.” As such our society has an obligation to invest in our lands to help those with title or lease adopt practices that reduce runoff, conserve soil, promote wildlife, and--yes, dare we production, and/or enhance conservation practices on our nation’s working lands say--sequester carbon dioxide. How much conservation? What policies will get us there? These are all questions that Secretary Vilsack, like Secretary Perdue before him, has pledged to answer by honoring the voices of those who own and tend the land. The Governor’s misinformation campaign threatens not only the level of conservation we might achieve, but it also creates an atmosphere of resentment that will discourage the participation of the very people most needed at the table to arrive at a workable solution—Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers, who are the true stewards of the land.