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County makes official its opposition to conservation plan

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“This is something that is going to affect you,” says Chaves County Commissioner Jeff Bilberry about the 30x30 plan. He also said people should ask how the county “will stay sustainable” if lands and waterways are set aside for conservation. (Daily Record File Photo)

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Chaves County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday morning to approve a resolution opposing the so-called 30×30 plan, saying that they see in the federal government initiative an effort to restrict private land ownership and productive use of lands and water.

“They keep creating these ACECs (areas of critical environmental concerns), these like-wilderness areas and these habitats, and it is just to take up and keep our ranchers and farmers and business people and oil and gas and you name it — It is to stop any type of economic promotion within our county, our state and our nation,” said Will Cavin, chair of the Board of Commissioners. “I appreciate the commission’s (passion) and the passion that everybody has to protect everybody in our county.”

He explained that he thinks efforts to set aside land and water as public assets, including work to preserve habitats for endangered species, have been used with the aim of limiting private ownership and production in the past and that the government keeps “moving the goal posts” on local governments, requiring more and more set asides.

The other four commissioners voted with him in adopting a resolution that states the county’s opposition to the plan and that will be forwarded to the Interior Department and other federal agencies. Most also spoke against the 30×30 plan, which is the nickname given to a Biden Administration goal to preserve, restore and conserve 30% of U.S. lands and 30% of its waters.

Proponents say that scientific experts have identified the need to do so to address a loss of biodiversity, a loss of habitats due to development and environmental damage, severe and damaging weather incidents, and increasing inequities in access to natural spaces as more areas, especially in certain areas of the U.S., become more urban.

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An executive order issued Jan. 27 to address climate change and environmental concerns included the 30×30 initiative and directed several federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, to work on developing ways to achieve the goal. The initial report by the Interior Department and other agencies made public on May 5 talked about a plan for the federal government to use existing funding and programs, or develop new mechanisms, to support local governments and organizations in their conservation goals. But three Chaves County commissioners said that they believe that the pressure to keep lands and water from public use will be intense.

“If you look back many years ago, the federal government will set aside this forest or this or whatever, to look at and it will be for public use, and then they lock everybody out and say, ‘Well, no, it is pristine and we just want to look at it,’” said Commissioner Dara Dana. “And now we are seeing when you look at a forest what happens. And all it takes, as dry as we are, is one spark and it is gone.”

As Dana alluded to, among the concerns listed in the resolution approved by commissioners is that the lack of usage makes natural environments more susceptible to fires, pests, invasive species and animal and plant diseases. She, Cavin and Commissioner Jeff Bilberry also said that a lack of farming, ranching, fishing, sports, recreation, oil and gas and other economic activity will cause harm in the county, where about 60% of land is owned by the government.

Bilberry also urged people to inform themselves on the topic. “This is going to affect everyone,” he said.

Local cattle rancher Jay Hollifield and his wife were present to support the commissioners in their opposition. Hollifield said that land he owns is surrounded by federal and state land.

“I think everybody in the cities needs to consider the trickle-down effect,” he said.

He explained his view that if the state and federal lands he leases are no longer available for cattle ranching, then his loss of income will affect city residents as well, not only in terms of taxes he pays but in terms of how much discretionary money he has available to spend with businesses.

The initial report of the federal agencies, called “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” stated, “Efforts to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters must respect the rights of private property owners. … This commitment includes a clear recognition that maintaining ranching in the West — on both public lands and private lands — is essential to maintaining the health of wildlife, the prosperity of local economies and an important and proud way of life.”

The report also indicates support for private foresters, fisheries and other businesses, while also saying they could be given incentives to practice conservation. The 30×30 plan has received the support of numerous environmental agencies, tribal authorities, outdoor recreationists and the U.S. Climate Alliance, which includes Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and 21 other governors.

County Manager Bill Williams said that he intends to organize a community meeting, now scheduled for July 22, where the public could hear more about the topic from Margaret Byfield, the executive director of the American Stewards of Liberty, a Texas-based private land ownership advocacy nonprofit that has been among the organizations leading efforts to oppose the 30×30 plan.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.