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Some governors are turning voluntary land conservation into a culture war item

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Inflation Reduction Act includes $20 billion to boost voluntary land conservation in farm country. And it is coming at a time when some Republican politicians are attacking the Biden administration after it announced a goal to conserve 30% of the country's land and water by the year 2030. Nebraska Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert reports on the rhetoric around land conservation.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: Conservation programs have been a cornerstone of agriculture since the 1930s Dust Bowl. The government has paid farmers and ranchers to set aside land to protect natural resources. And it's worked. There's less erosion and safer groundwater. But now, in some ag circles, conservation is under attack, seemingly for political purposes. Here's Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts at an Earth Day event in Lincoln, Neb., last April.

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PETE RICKETTS: There are radical environmentalists that are pushing 30%, 50% of the Earth not to be used by humans. That should be very scary.

REMBERT: He's referring to the Biden administration's America the Beautiful initiative. It's essentially a goal to triple conservation of the nation's land and water to 30%. It's better known as 30 by 30. Ricketts has spearheaded a movement that frames the initiative as a federal land grab. He and other Republican politicians in states like Colorado, Texas and Virginia suggest the government wants land out of agriculture and will use conservation to trick landowners if that's what it takes.

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RICKETTS: And if we don't stand up for those private property rights, we are undermining the very foundation of our republic.

REMBERT: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the government will not be taking land, and he only wants to help farmers and ranchers protect their soil, water and wildlife. And farmers and ranchers want that, too. In a Nebraska poll, 95% of Democrats and Republicans supported voluntary conservation. Researcher Lori Weigel says that's the highest approval she sees these days.

LORI WEIGEL: This is one of the most bipartisan things I've tested in years, to be honest.

REMBERT: Even so, the president's goal to boost conservation is not going over well in some parts of the country. This unusual pushback makes sense to Elizabeth Rowe, who studies rural environmental views and says most farmers feel a strong sense of responsibility for their land. But that can be coupled with a strong skepticism for the federal government.

ELIZABETH ROWE: I'm not surprised by the idea that you can have communities that really value conservation and oppose this 30 by 30 policy.

REMBERT: Rowe's research at Duke University showed rural residents often feel they're blamed for climate change and left out of government decisions. John Hansen is with the Nebraska Farmers Union. He says while 30 by 30 may have some gaps, Governor Ricketts and others are lying about farmers losing control through conservation programs.

JOHN HANSEN: What he has been doing is to create question marks and fears and suspicions where there should be none.

REMBERT: Dean Fedde and his brother Wayne use conservation practices on their Nebraska farm. They say they aren't at all worried about losing ownership.

DEAN FEDDE: There is no land grab. The government is not going to take your farm. They're to help protect that ground. They want to see working farms continue to be working farms. It's just opposite of what's being told.

REMBERT: But many have bought into the land grab message as a political one. And some rural counties across the country have formally opposed the 30 by 30 goal. So even with widespread support, it appears that conservation is being used as bait to try to turn rural voters against Democratic policies. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Rembert