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Opposing Biden’s vision for public lands, hard-right group makes inroads in Colorado

At least four counties have signaled resistance to 30X30 plan
The view of Palisade from atop the Palisade Rim Trail. The Palisade Plunge Trail, approved by Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, starts atop the Grand Mesa and ends at the Colorado River. The American Stewards of Liberty, a group based in Texas, is pushing local Colorado governments to oppose the Biden administration’s 30×30 plan to preserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030.

Land grab or precious-resource preservation?

The battle over where the truth – and where Westerners’ hearts – lie on that matter is rumbling through Colorado counties as a federal government initiative nicknamed 30×30 gains momentum, and opposition.

Colorado has become the beachhead in a Texas-based group’s efforts to use local governments to thwart the Biden administration’s proposal to preserve 30% of the nation’s land and water by 2030. The proposal is part of President Joe Biden’s January Executive Order on Tackling Climate Change at Home and Abroad.

The American Stewards of Liberty has been whipping up anti-30×30 sentiment and pushing county commissioners to pass resolutions opposing the proposal even before its details are known. The nuts and bolts are being hashed out by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The American Stewards, a group steeped in anti-government land battles, has succeeded in convincing at least four Colorado counties that local officials won’t like what is to come. Garfield County, where the federal government owns more than 62% of the land, in February became the first in the nation to pass an anti-30×30 resolution. Moffat, Rio Blanco and Las Animas counties more recently followed suit.

“Here we go again with top-down policies from Washington, D.C., that have direct and adverse effects on local communities,” Republican Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky wrote in a letter to the departments of Interior and Agriculture decrying the initiative.

Garfield County’s resolution included a statement that lands left in undisturbed states are a burden on local counties because they are “highly susceptible to wildland wildfires, insect infestation and disease.”

It did not mention how much Western Colorado counties have come to rely on outdoor recreation on public lands.

Moffat County’s commissioners wrote in their opposition resolution that the top 10 taxpayers in that northwestern Colorado county are dependent on federal lands and the resources under those lands.

“The 30×30 program, if implemented, is likely to cause significant harm to the economy of Moffat County, and injure the county’s businesses and its citizens by depriving them of access to public lands and national forest system lands and preventing the productive use of these lands’ resources,” the resolution said.

One Colorado county the American Stewards group has been wooing is still on the fence because of a delicate-balance quandary. The Mesa County commissioners are holding off as they wait and see about another public land-impacting matter: the future of the location of the Bureau of Land Management’s national headquarters, which was relocated to Grand Junction last summer.

New Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland expressed her opposition to that move in her former role as a U.S. representative from New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District. The commissioners fear that coming out in opposition to the 30×30 initiative that Haaland supports might tip the BLM headquarters decision out of their favor.

“We are waiting with some trepidation as to what that report is going to look like. We also want to make sure the BLM is going to stay here,” said Mesa County Commissioner Cody Davis, a Republican who was elected in November. “We don’t really know at this point what 30×30 is going to mean.”

The American Stewards group has made other headway in Colorado, where 36% of the land is owned by the federal government. Montezuma County is listed as “in progress” for passing an anti-30×30 resolution, along with a dozen counties in Kansas and Nebraska.

The Associated Governments of Western Colorado has passed an opposition resolution, and Republican U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado’s 3rd District and Doug Lamborn of the 5th District have signed a letter with 60 other federal lawmakers in the Congressional Western Caucus outlining a litany of concerns about the initiative.

On the other side of the battle

Supporters of 30×30, including the Center for Western Priorities, the Western Leaders Network, the Colorado Wildlands Project and the Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust, are not carrying out a county-by-county campaign like the opponents. They have floated their own proposal and are stating what they hope the initiative will contain when a proposal is finalized.

“We are looking at conserving lands we already have,” said Jesse Prentice Dunn, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities. “We are looking at voluntary conservation easements and expanding national monuments. There is no discussion about purchasing new lands or turning private lands public.”

Scott Braden, director of the Colorado Wildlands Project, pointed out that only 8% of the 8.3 million BLM acres in Western Colorado currently are conserved. He said he would like to see more of those public lands under conservation easements – and more of that conservation guided by local input, not stymied by “a group from Texas making wild claims.”

While this battle is waged, Colorado already has a legislative proposal that is meant to get a jump on Biden’s 30×30 initiative.

The “Colorado Pathways to 30×30” proposal from the consortium of conservation groups advocates for protection of about 20 million acres in the state by 2030 and is designed to be an example for other states. Since statehood, Colorado has protected 6 million acres.

Among the strategies is a public lands package introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and passed in February that covers almost 3 million acres, mostly in Colorado, California, Washington and Arizona.

That bill illuminated an ideological split that was evident as the congressional delegation from Colorado debated the measure on the House floor. The legislation encompassed eight land protection bills, including two from DeGette and Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Boulder, that would affect more than 1 million acres of public lands in Colorado.

“At the end of the day, we have an obligation to leave our environment better than we found it. That’s what this bill is all about,” Neguse said in February.

But Boebert, R-Silt, said the bill “targets” her district and was opposed by the Colorado Farm Bureau and numerous local officials “because of the damage they know that it will cause and the activities it will prevent.”

Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said he knew the intent of supporters was to protect the land, but in practice, the wilderness designation is too restrictive, preventing people from even using bicycles or strollers. “I prefer public lands with many uses,” he said.

He also voiced concerns that the greater land-use restrictions would halt forest management practices that can reduce fire risks, though supporters of the bill say the secretary of agriculture has the authority in wilderness areas to take measures necessary to control fire, insects and disease.

“We are going to see bigger and hotter fires in Colorado than ever before,” Lamborn said.

Neither Lamborn nor Boebert returned calls requesting comment about 30×30.

Barnstorming with a message

The American Stewards of Liberty, based in Georgetown, Texas, is continuing to barnstorm Colorado and other Western states in a concerted effort to convince more local officials and their constituents to oppose 30×30.

The organization’s “Guide to Fight” for counties says the initiative is being advanced by “radical environmental activists.” The guide, which features an empty landscape under a menacing dark sky on its cover, calls 30×30 “an unconstitutional policy shift, moving us from a nation founded on private property principles to one controlled by the administrative state.”

“I think this group is going around projecting fears about what is unknown,” said Braden with the Colorado Wildlands Project. “They are turning this into a bogeyman and ginning up conflict. Biden’s climate order takes great pains to say that they will work with state and local governments on this.”

Margaret Byfield, the founder of the American Stewards, responded that she does not believe federal-local cooperation will be part of 30×30.

“The federal government resists coordinating with local governments,” she said. “Federal agencies should be working closely with local governments because local governments have knowledge about how local lands should be managed. But they (federal officials) aren’t.”

Byfield has been holding “training sessions” around the West and Midwest where public lands are expansive and agriculture represents a big chunk of land use. The sessions are designed to teach officials and citizens how to oppose the measure.

Byfield responded to The Colorado Sun during an airport layover as she was traveling between training sessions in South Dakota and Montana.

For two days in early May, she has training sessions scheduled in Cortez, in Montezuma County, with the sponsorship of the Colorado Livestock Association. She said the sessions will be geared toward teaching locals what their rights are when it comes to land-use decisions in their jurisdictions. In her view, the local jurisdictions have rights the federal government is trampling on.

“The 30×30 policy is a policy about control,” she said. “It is anti-capitalism. It is anti-individual liberty. It is anti-American.”

Dueling charges of radicalism

Land conservationists aren’t just on the opposite side of the fence from Byfield and the American Stewards. While Byfield calls the land conservation sector radical, they complain that the true radicals in this land battle are in her camp

Byfield is the daughter of Wayne and Jean Hage, who were part of the original Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1990s. The Hages battled the federal government then, grazing their cattle on public lands without a permit well before Cliven Bundy’s armed confrontation in Nevada in 2014. The Hages’ cattle were later confiscated by federal land managers and a back-and-forth court battle strung out until 2017.

Other anti-30×30 activists with the American Stewards of Liberty have questioned the legitimacy of the last presidential election, the seriousness of COVID-19 and the validity of climate change. At least one of them has ties to former President Donald Trump.

The group has received funding from conservative “dark money” billionaires, including the Koch brothers and the DeVos family. The DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which serves as a conduit for political donors like the Kochs and DeVoses, donated $170,000 to the American Stewards of Liberty between 2015 and 2019.

Trent Loos, a Nebraska radio show host who sat on a Trump administration agricultural advisory team and is now part of the American Stewards for Liberty anti-30×30 campaign, has opined that Hitler and Nazism gave birth to the ecology movement. When asked directly, Byfield did not reject that connection.

Loos was photographed in 2016 with Ammon Bundy at the Malheur Refuge standoff in Oregon where he went to interview Ammon Bundy. During that interview, Loos blamed the federal government for the 40-day standoff – not those who took over the refuge.

The American Stewards’ group initially formed as a nonprofit educational organization in 1992 through the merger of two other libertarian-leaning groups. The American Land Foundation, created as a real estate agency by the Farm Credit Bank of Texas, and the Stewards of the Range, founded by Western ranchers to support the legal battle waged by Byfield’s parents, came together to become the American Stewards of Liberty.

Opposite aims, similar tactics

Gwen Lachelt, a former La Plata County commissioner who founded the Western Leaders Network and who had been working on conservation issues before 30×30 became a politically-charged campaign, has taken to using similar methods as the American Stewards to generate support for the initiative.

Like the American Stewards, she has created a model resolution of support that any county or community can pass. Boulder, Gilpin, San Miguel and La Plata counties and the town of Telluride have passed her group’s resolution. Like the American Stewards, Lachelt also has disseminated a “toolkit” of information and talking points for those inclined to proselytize about the benefits of 30×30.

Lachelt said she views the initiative as simply an extension of movements already underway, including the CORE Act and the permanent protection of Wilderness Study Areas that have been awaiting action in Colorado for years.

The pro- and anti-30×30 factions might share some tactics in this battle, but neither side anticipates any meeting of the minds on the details of the initiative.

“They tell us that we as independents can’t make decisions about our land. That is un-American,” Byfield said when asked if she envisioned working together with conservationists to hone details of 30×30.

“I find their positions alarming and frankly really extreme,” Lachelt said. “I am fearful this opposition to 30×30 just wants to stay pitted against rational dialogue.”

That is a shame in her estimation. “This could be a big moment for climate change,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is a supporter of the 30×30 concept, and a spokesperson for his office wrote in an email that he is encouraging the Biden administration to take a lesson from broadly supported, locally-led conservation efforts in Colorado.

He is encouraging the administration to reach out to ranchers, hunters and anglers, and local elected leaders who worked for over a decade to draft the CORE Act, which would protect about 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado, establish new wilderness areas and safeguard existing outdoor recreation opportunities. He also thinks there is something to learn from private landowners maintaining critical wildlife habitat on their working lands.

Bennet, his spokesperson said, believes, if 30×30 is done right, pursuing the goals of the initiative will do more than combat climate change. It will also “grow local economies, and increase community resilience.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.