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Federal conservation plan opponent details concerns

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“It is an international agenda,” says Margaret Byfield about the initiative by President Joe Biden’s administration to conserve 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030. “You guys didn’t come up with this, and neither did he.” (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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An opponent of the federal land and water conservation initiative known as the “30 by 30” plan is urging Chaves County and New Mexico residents to be watchful about wildlife protection actions and federal initiatives that encourage private landowners to work with the government on conservation.

Margaret Byfield, executive director of American Stewards of Liberty in Texas, said that those are among the mechanisms that likely will be used to take control or ownership of private lands.

Speaking Thursday night at a special meeting of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners, Byfield also told the crowd of about 80 people that they should support entities opposing the group, including the local governments passing resolutions against the 30×30 initiative. Chaves County and three other New Mexico counties are among those governments.

“We have to send the message to the White House that this is not locally driven and it is not locally supported,” Byfield said. “Their idea of locally supported is if the environmentalists in the area support it, not the landowners.”

The 30×30 initiative aims to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and 30% of its waters by 2030. The conservation plan is being pushed or implemented in other countries as well. It began to take shape in the United States first as a policy from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and then as federal legislation with supporters such as former New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, formerly a New Mexico delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. On Jan. 27, President Joe Biden issued an executive order about climate change and the environment that included developing and implementing policies for the 30×30 plan.

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Byfield’s group began an immediate campaign in opposition, which has included coordinating with governors and Congressional leaders to write Biden to express concerns or the intent to oppose the plan.

On Thursday night, Byfield presented some detailed information to support her views, including the estimation that another 409 million acres in the United States will have to be preserved in their natural state, which she defined as largely unused by humans, to increase land conservation from its current 12% to the 30% goal. Some legislators have said that 26% of U.S. waters already are conserved. The Interior Department officials and other federal employees tasked with developing and implementing the 30×30 plan have said that defining what constitutes conservation will have to be done after discussions with others, so they cannot say how much more land or water will have to be protected. But Byfield considers such statements as “hiding the ball” and added that conserving 409 million acres cannot happen without taking control or ownership of private land.

While her hour-long speech had many details, Byfield summarized four key points against the initiative. The first is that only Congress has the authority to order land conservation, although she acknowledges that a president can use existing federal laws, programs and funding for that purpose. Second is that “no credible science” exists to support claims that wildlife or habitat loss is occurring at the rates being used to justify the conservation goals or that the 30×30 plan will improve matters.

Third is that the proponents are primarily “radical environmentalists” and people pushing an “international agenda,” not the U.S. private landowners that she thinks will experience a loss of control or ownership of their land. Her fourth point is that she does not think working with federal officials to develop the policies will help.

“What you guys really need to understand, and what I hope is clear by now, is that we are the menu item. We don’t have a seat at the table,” she said. “We are the main menu item.”

After the meeting, she said that she thinks the real intent of the program is about advancing a socialistic agenda.

“By controlling the land, you control the people,” she said.

She added that the international environmental agenda “is socialism. They are not bashful about it. It is not me saying it.”

Others think cooperation possible

Not all landowner groups have staked out opposition to 30×30.

Members of the Western Landowners Alliance, based in Santa Fe, have decided to do what Byfield doesn’t think is possible, work with the federal officials as they develop specifics of the plan.

The group represents the owners of ranches, farms, forestry businesses or fisheries in nine Western states and in Alberta, Canada, who operate on both private and public lands. Scientists, academicians and government workers also are part of the organization.

The group’s executive director, Lesli Allison, says that the alliance neither supports or opposes the 30×30 initiative at this point, but has worked with federal officials and found them receptive to considering other viewpoints, as reflected by some of the language in the executive order and the administration’s initial report about the need to engage and respect agribusiness interest, rural communities and private property owners.

Byfield said the title of that first report, “American the Beautiful,” is a “rebranding” effort meant to downplay the goal to control more land and to appeal to urban residents, but Allison expresses more optimism about some good coming from dialogue.

“It’s long past time for a national conversation about what conservation is,” Allison said. “We see a potential opportunity to redefine conservation so that it actually does work for working lands and rural communities. We believe that conservation needs to be led by the people closest to the ground, but we aren’t going to get there if we are not willing to be at the table. I don’t know a landowner who actually opposes conservation. Even as people oppose 30×30, they are asking what can be done to preserve ranchlands and rural life.”

She said that she agrees that fear and skepticism are legitimate because many organizations are trying to remove economic activity from private and public lands and because the U.S. political environment is often polarizing and lacking in rational decision-making.

“But in spite of the fear out there,” Allison said, “there are a lot of people who recognize that 30×30 could be an opportunity to recognize the value of working lands, to recognize the value that working lands already provide and to ensure resources are there to support that.”

She added, “If we don’t show up and have the conversation and communicate our values and interests, then we really will be on the menu. So we are taking the opposite approach. We want to be at the table as long as we can and as effectively as we can.”

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