Shortly after taking office in January, President Biden signed an executive order which started an initiative to conserve 30% of the country’s land and water through a variety of means, including expanding public lands and voluntary conservation efforts by farmers, ranchers and tribal nations, by 2030. What does it all mean for Graham and Greenlee counties? Nobody really knows yet.
The plan, which is being colloquially called the “30 by 30” plan, was created to mitigate the effects of climate change and retool the nation’s economy to embrace renewable energy.
“The ambition of this goal reflects the urgency of the challenges we face: the need to do more to safeguard the drinking water, clean air, food supplies, and wildlife upon which we all depend; the need to fight climate change with the natural solutions that our forests, agricultural lands, and the ocean provide; and the need to give every child in America the chance to experience the wonders of nature,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland stated in a preliminary report on the program called “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful.”
America the Beautiful is the official name of the 30 by 30 plan.
“Rather than simply measuring conservation progress by national parks, wilderness lands, and marine protected areas in the care of the government, the President’s vision recognizes and celebrates the voluntary conservation efforts of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners; the leadership of sovereign Tribal Nations in caring for lands, waters, and wildlife; the contributions and stewardship traditions of America’s hunters, anglers, and fishing communities; and the vital importance of investing in playgrounds, trails, and open space in park-deprived communities,” Haaland wrote.
Although ambitious, the plan as it is now, is light on details or specifics about actual actions that the federal government will take to enact the plan.
Under the plan, The Department of the Interior will lead the implementation of the plan and work with other federal agencies to build the “American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas,” to collect “baseline information on the amount and types of lands and waters that are being managed for conservation and restoration purposes,” wrote the DOI’s Deputy Press Secretary, Giovanni Rocco.
The report goes on to say that the “atlas” will also be built with the advice of other stakeholders like farmers, ranchers, forest owners and private landowners “through effective and voluntary conservation measures.”
“I personally think the government has enough property,” said Greenlee County Supervisor Richard Lunt. Lunt said he’d yet to hear from any federal agency about how Greenlee County would be affected by the initiative, but in general, he’s for private ownership of land, not public ownership by a agency of the federal government, especially in Greenlee County, where a large part of the land is owned and operated by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service.
In a Congressional Research Service report entitled “Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data,” updated last year, the report states that the federal government owns about 28% of lands in the U.S. already. In Arizona, the federal government owns about 38.6% of land in the state. Since 1990, the federal government’s land holdings in the state has decreased by 18.4%.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports that 12% of lands in the U.S. is “permanently protected,” like in national parks or wildlife refuges. Twenty-three percent of the country’s ocean is “strongly protected,” like in marine protected areas.
The plan does not stipulate that the 30% of land become the latter kind of “permanently protected areas.”
“The President’s challenge specifically emphasizes the notion of ‘conservation’ of the nation’s natural resources (rather than the related but different concept of ‘protection’ or ‘preservation’) recognizing that many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems,” the report states. “The 30 percent goal also reflects the need to support conservation and restoration efforts across all lands and waters, not solely on public lands, including by incentivizing voluntary stewardship efforts on private lands and by supporting the efforts and visions of States and Tribal Nations.”
“I think the land is best served when it’s serving,” Lunt said, meaning, when it’s open for ranching, mining, farming and other uses.
Especially in a time of large wildfires, Lunt said that ranchers and their cattle have an important part to play in reducing foliage and other fuel for fires, something that he worries will either lessen or go away entirely if more land in Greenlee County is held by a federal agency.
One of the principals of the plan is to “support locally led and locally designed conservation” as well as to “honor tribal sovereignty and support the priorities of tribal nations.”
All in all, Lunt thinks that federal agencies often mismanage public lands and that private landowners could manage the land more efficiently, for both business interests and public recreationalists and environmentalists.
“We keep stubbing our toes when it comes to land,” Lunt said. “I want the public land used. I also want it managed well.”
Greenlee County Sheriff Tim Sumner went before the Greenlee County Board of Supervisors last month and asked them to consider coming out against the plan. He called it a “land grab” that will result in the death of ranching.
Graham County rancher Calvert Allred agrees federal agencies aren’t doing a great job managing public lands.
“The federal government can’t manage what they already have, to put more on their plate would make it worse in my opinion.”
Allred, who work for a federal law enforcement agency and who has a grazing permit to graze his cattle on 40,000 acres of BLM land and 10,000 acres of state trust land, said that although he has good relationship with BLM employees he comes in contact with, he disagrees that having the agency or another federal agency control more public land might be for the benefit of people and the environment. Ranchers, Allred said, already maintain the land they graze already.
“The problem is that most Americans have zero ideas about what government land ownership means. They live in private property states,” Allred said, referring to states, mainly on the east coast of the country, where the federal government manages little or no land.
“We have precious little to give,” said Graham County Supervisor Paul David, “It’s like asking someone starving to death to give blood.”
David said the country has not discussed the plan, nor have they heard from either the BLM, the DOI or any other federal agency about it. David said the issue was discussed among the Coalition of Arizona and New Mexico Counties, but with little specific details released about the plan, no actions were taken.
David said he is concerned about the potential the plan has to curtail mining and other economic activity and even public recreation projects that could affect the county’s taxable land, “At this point, it’s just been a proposal, there hasn’t been any action,” David said. “It has potential to create concerns, but there’s nothing substantial yet.
Even beyond that, with the plan projected to take almost a full decade to unfold, David doubted if the plan would be even fully conceived if President Biden wasn’t reelected in 2024, or even if he does serve a second term, if his the president that succeeds him will complete the plan.
Lunt said he is similarly concerned about the effect of placing more of the county’s land into public lands, taking them out of the tax base of the county.
Instead of the 30 by 30 plan, Lunt said he’d like to see a plan that “makes a difference,” by including the input of the federal government, environmentalists, ranchers, mineral companies other economic interests that both protects endangered species and habitats and allows industry and the public to make a profit on the land.