CODY — President Joe Biden’s plan for conservation has drawn a concerned response from the Park County commissioners, prompting them to craft a resolution opposing one of the president’s key agenda pieces.
“I don’t believe the federal government owns the land,” Commissioner Chairman Lee Livingston said. “It’s the people’s land.”
A week after Biden took office, he signed an executive order announcing his commitment to protecting 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030. In May that plan took a more concrete shape through the “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” report that has now become known as the “30 by 30 plan.” The plan cites biodiversity and wildlife population losses as a driving impetus for the project.
he commissioners’ resolution directly opposes the 30 by 30 plan, stating that designating lands as wilderness does not guarantee their preservation, and arguing that leaving them in an undisturbed state could lead to wildfires, insect infestation and disease.
“Because of the predominance of federal land in Park County, the well-being, health, safety, welfare, economic condition and culture of the County, its businesses and its citizens depend on the way these lands and their resources are used and access to these lands,” the resolution reads. “The 30 x 30 program, if implemented, is likely to cause significant harm to the economy of Park 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.”
Biden’s plan has drawn both hope and apprehension from conservationists and those who live off the land.
Forty-eight percent of Park County lands are federally managed. Although Commissioner Lloyd Thiel said this may appear on paper to give the county a certain amount of security, he worries the government will pick on Park County and the rest of Wyoming in order to make up for more densely populated locations on the East Coast they cannot convert to protected land.
“If this goes through, they could take the entire state of Wyoming and leave New Jersey because they don’t have any land available,” he said.
The 30 by 30 plan invites farmers, ranchers and fishermen to get involved with the project, and describes ranching in the West “as an important and proud way of life.” Notably, the report includes farming, grazing and logging as part of the 30% designation, as long as these lands are managed with “the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems” kept in consideration. The plan also opens up more public land to hunting and fishing, a commitment the administration has already followed through on.
Still, this conciliatory approach has not been enough to sway State Rep. John Winter, R-Thermopolis, on the issue. He called BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland “bad folks,” saying they are opposed to the State of Wyoming and all other Western states, for what he said is their effort to get rid of livestock grazing and multiple use activity on public lands.
The commissioners are in support of multiple use and the board “supports the continued management of the public lands and the national forests under principles of multiple use and sustained yield,” the commissioners’ resolution reads, “recognizing the nation’s need for domestic sources of minerals, energy, timber, food and fiber.”
Winter said he expects the government to use tax dollars to purchase permanent conservation easements to reach the 30 by 30 goals. A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and an eligible easement holder that restricts future activities on a piece of land to protect its conservation values.
“The private land is the most productive and they’re going to attack it,” he told the commissioners during a meeting on Nov. 16. “They can basically dictate what you can do with your private land (under a conservation easement).”
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has also been a vehement opponent of the 30 by 30, ordering his state’s agencies to resist the federal 30 by 30 initiative through an executive order.
Livingston did say “maybe preserving some of this stuff might not be a bad idea,” but expressed trepidation about this action coming through a federal mandate.
Currently, 12% of American lands are managed by the federal government. The Biden report attempted to issue an olive branch to a variety of land users and laid out a science-based guidebook for how 30 by 30 would be achieved through local leadership. The 30 by 30 plan aims to expand the definition of “conserved” land away from the term “protected,” and to put more power into local officials to see this goal accomplished as they see fit for a total of 680 million conserved acres nationwide. More than 50 countries worldwide have committed to 30 by 30 plans.
In their resolution, the commissioners still describe this action as “preventing the productive use of these lands and their resources.” They also said adding protections to land and waterways in Park County will restrict the public’s ability to use them and their resources.
During the Tuesday commissioner meeting, Commissioner Joe Tilden mentioned the roughly 385,000 acres of “lands with wilderness characteristics” existing in the Big Horn Basin, areas deemed eligible for future wilderness protection and a longtime sticking point for him and former Commissioner Loren Grosskopf.
“The director, with the stroke of a pen tomorrow, could declare that to be managed as wilderness areas,” he said.
The commissioners dispute the constitutional authority of Biden’s plan to expand conserved land, but said if it does occur, they demand it happen with local input and public notice. In August, the board finalized its Natural Resource Management Plan that promotes multiple use activity on public lands and national forests, and obligates the federal government to coordinate its policy development with the county.
“Park County is serious about their lands here and we would like it to be some local control rather than a mandate from Washington, D.C.,” Livingston said.
The commissioners’ resolution states that any private land transferred to the federal government should only be acquired through willing landowners at fair market value and after analysis has taken place regarding the impacts that occur to the surrounding area from the action.
The 30 by 30 report also mentioned moments of discrimination from the past such as the appropriation of Native American land, in some cases devoted to national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and promised to work towards a more inclusive future for this group of people. The administration also plans to prioritize access to nature for disadvantaged communities.
Polls conducted in eight Western states show that more than 80 percent of voters support creating new national parks and monuments, wildlife refuges and tribally protected areas, according to High Country News last May.
The commissioners’ resolution will be sent to Gov. Mark Gordon’s office and Wyoming’s U.S. congressional delegation.