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Ricketts' order on 30-by-30 conservation effort is short on actual roadblocks
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Ricketts' order on 30-by-30 conservation effort is short on actual roadblocks

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The rye and rapeseed that Rick Clifton cultivated in central Ohio were coming along nicely — until his tractor rumbled over the flat, fertile landscape, spraying it with herbicides.

In his battle against the federal government, Gov. Pete Ricketts has directed state agencies to take “any necessary step” to resist a federal initiative to conserve 30% of American land and waters by 2030.

He signed the executive order last month, in the leafy shade of the garden at the Governor’s Mansion, flanked by allies from rural county governments and agricultural organizations.

“Nebraska’s farmers and ranchers are the original conservationists, and they have a long tradition of being great stewards of our state’s land and water,” he said. “Supporting their conservation efforts is the best way to ensure that we can grow the food we need to feed the world and pass along the land to the next generation of ag producers.”

Ricketts said his order is aimed at stopping implementation of what he calls “the 30x30 land grab.” But a closer look at the order shows it to be long on education and information-gathering and short on steps that would block the expansion of conservation efforts.

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The Republican governor’s target is a goal that Democratic President Joe Biden included in a January executive order intended to bring attention to climate issues. A follow-up federal report called for the 30% by 2030 initiative to be voluntary, locally led and respect private property rights.

But Ricketts argues that the federal government will have to use strong-arm tactics to reach its goal. He raises particular concern about conservation easements, especially permanent ones.

“It could be the federal government already knows exactly what they want to do and they’re just not telling us,” he said. “It could be devastating to rural Nebraska.”

Here is a look at the specifics of the executive order:

State money. The order requires state agencies to stop providing money or staff support for any projects involving permanent conservation easements. It requires those agencies to get approval from the Governor’s Office to support projects involving conservation easements with a set term of years.

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But the fine print in the order limits its scope. The only state agencies covered are those under the governor’s control — so-called code agencies. That leaves out the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the Nebraska Environmental Trust, among others.

The order applies only to discretionary funds, those dollars not directed by state or federal law. And the order allows the Governor’s Office to approve several exceptions, such as for multistate water agreements, infrastructure and water management programs.

The Department of Natural Resources handles the largest number of programs that might be affected by the order. Spokeswoman Lori Arthur said five funds have been used for temporary or permanent conservation easements in the past. She estimated that projects involving such easements added up to about $5 million this year. Two of the funds have no money.

But she said the department director has discretionary control over only one of the five funds, the Water Resources Cash Fund. Lawmakers created that pool of money to pay for projects reducing water use in water-short areas of the state, especially the Republican River basin.

A multistate agreement requires Nebraska to send a certain volume of Republican River water downstream to Kansas. Easements used to limit or restrict irrigation and help Nebraska fulfill those obligations would likely fall under the executive order’s exemptions.

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Exemptions may also apply to easements used for storage and flood-control reservoirs, along with flood easements and levees. Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the Governor’s Office has not approved any exemptions yet but will be reviewing requests for them.

The Department of Agriculture runs the only other program affected by the governor’s order. The Buffer Strip Incentive Program pays farmers to maintain buffer strips between crops and waterways to reduce pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Farmers sign 5- or 10-year contracts. The state expects to spend less than $620,000 on the program this year. It is unclear whether it would fall under the water management exemption.

Endangered species. The order puts an 18-month hold on approving state regulations to protect additional endangered species of plants or wildlife. Some landowners chafe at restrictions that have been imposed for the benefit of endangered species, such as the whooping crane, black-footed ferret, blowout penstemon and Salt Creek tiger beetle.

But the hold changes little. State officials said there are no proposals in the pipeline that would add to the endangered species list.

Tax workshops. The order requires the Department of Revenue to hold at least three workshops for county officials to help them understand the property tax consequences of conservation and preservation easements.

Because conservation easements limit what property owners can do with their land, easements can affect what a buyer might pay for that land. That, in turn, would reduce the land’s taxable value. Ricketts has emphasized that possible consequence, pointing out that other property owners have to pick up the slack when taxable values of some properties drop.

But the amount of the reduction varies on a case-by-case basis, depending on the type of limits involved and the characteristics of the property.

One easement, for example, could involve giving up the right to raise crops on flood-prone bottom land. Another could mean protecting productive cropland from being developed into a big-box store without limiting its ability to be farmed.

Statewide, easements have minimal impact on the property tax base. Less than one-half of 1% of acres in Nebraska — or 176,066 acres out of more than 49 million — are under a conservation easement, according to the National Conservation Easement Database.

County review. State revenue officials also are to advise counties at the workshops about their right to review and approve easements under state law. If a county has zoning in place, the local government can deny an easement if it conflicts with a previously approved land use plan or a previously announced plan for government use of the land.

Lists and inventory. The governor’s order includes two requirements aimed at making information more available. He directed the Revenue Department to create an inventory of conservation easements across the state. Such information has been kept at the county level, if at all.

The order also requires the Agriculture Department to keep an online list of local governments that have taken positions for or against the 30-by-30 initiative. As of Friday, the list showed that 52 county governments had passed resolutions in opposition. None had passed resolutions in support.

Climate Task Force. Ricketts designated State Agriculture Director Steve Wellman as the state coordinator for a Climate Task Force recently created by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

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