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Federal conservation plan raises questions, confusion among Kansas stakeholders

by Noah Taborda

TOPEKA — A lack of specifics on a federal plan to conserve and protect lands and waters across the country has led to confusion in Kansas among the public, state legislators, wildlife officials, and advocacy groups.

In January, President Joe Biden issued an executive order on the 30×30 plan intended to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030. A report on the plan issued in May provided few specifics to how the project would be accomplished.

Misinformation surrounding the federal effort, now conflated with an unrelated plan to establish a National Heritage area in north-central Kansas and southern Nebraska, has led some to deem it a land grab. Republicans in D.C. have moved to block 30×30 in response to those concerns, but the Biden administration has assured landowners and legislators it will be a voluntary process.

Agricultural groups in Kansas representing concerned farmers say there are potential positives with conservation efforts they already employ but remain cautious about the plan described in the report.

“There are still questions and topics that need to be addressed,” said Ryan Flickner, senior director of the advocacy division at the Kansas Farm Bureau. “For example, how would the federal government achieve a nationwide plan without infringing on farmers’ and ranchers’ privacy and private property rights? Does the federal government intend to subject farmers and ranchers to burdensome reporting requirements related to their private property?

“The document doesn’t distinguish between publicly held land and private lands. A clear definition needs to be established between the two.”

Agricultural and environmental advocates, as well as private landowners, joined Flickner to testify last week before a panel of state legislators assembled to determine what action, if any, Kansas should take. Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration also weighed in on the plan.

The intent of 30×30 has received praise from many environmental groups who say the action is a necessary step toward reversing environmental damage, fighting climate change and maintaining resources people are dependent on for quality of life. They also argue it will ensure more equitable access to nature.

The Kansas contingent of lawmakers in D.C. has largely stood in opposition to the plan In May, U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall introduced the 30×30 Termination Act, stating the federal government should instead trust farmers and ranchers with making decisions regarding their land.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran has backed these efforts to nullify the conservation plan.

Brad Loveless, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, suggested U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should work with state agencies to foster voluntary and incentivized efforts alongside private landowners rather than the 30% threshold.

“Private landowners and working lands play a critical role in fish, wildlife and habitat conservation, particularly in a state like Kansas,” Loveless said. “Unless you put money in these landowners’ pockets — they are trying to make a living and scrape by — and unless you can incentivize this, you won’t be successful. The simple point: Put your money where your mouth is.”

Loveless said the proposal does present positives if it is used to further conservation efforts KDWP already is engaging in. For example, with additional funds, the state could hire workers to speak with farmers and ranchers about how conservation can also benefit their crop yields.

Still, like many aspects of the plan, what funding would be available to the state is unclear.

That uncertainty and lack of clarity have led people to group the separate effort to establish the national heritage area on the Kansas-Nebraska border with the 30×30 debate. The effort to create this heritage area originated in 2016 by the Willa Cather Foundation and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with the intent of boosting tourism and economic development.

The designation provides branding to highlight the historic sites in the area and up to $1 million per year in federal matching funds.

With the announcement of the 30×30 plan, Kansas residents began to raise concerns the heritage area could potentially lead to the seizure of land. Beth Salmans, a Marysville resident, said the NHA would simply double up on regulations already in farm programs.

“There is no one better at taking care of the land entrusted to them than the generational farmer or rancher,” Salmans said. “They improve the land to be able to pass it along to their children and grandchildren in better condition than when they received it.”

Kent Glasscock, a former Republican speaker of the Kansas House and a previous member of the Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage area board, said people were caught up in the confusion surrounding 30×30. He said the NHAs do not infringe upon pirate lands, and he would not have been involved in the efforts had they done so.

He noted that the last five heritage areas were enacted by President Donald Trump and several others by Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — none of whom he would describe as land grabbers.

“Those who established Freedom’s Frontier Heritage Area wrote the law to specifically give landowners a choice: They can be involved or not,” Glasscock said. “No landowner can be forced to join — and any landowner who chooses to join can get out at any time.”

Rep. Ken Rahjes, a Republican from Agra who serves as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said legislators would take up the issue when they return to the Statehouse in January. He said conservation remained important, but the method remains up in the air.

“I think it would behoove us all to continue those conversations with our constituents and with those that do have questions,” Rahjes said. “If we don’t have the answer, we go find somebody who does. Find the facts, because that is how we will make the right decision for all Kansans, whether you live in the country or in the city, or in Johnson County or Johnson City.”

The Kansas Reflector is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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