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Billions of dollars may soon be en route for US wildlife conservation. But a Texas-based org’s groundless ‘land grab’ warnings have seeded resistance across the West.
Last week, the US House of Representatives approved the most significant investment in wildlife protection in a generation. Intended to arrest the nation’s biodiversity crisis—where an estimated third of all wildlife species are at heightened risk of extinction—by investing in local, state, and tribally led conservation work, Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would launch in 2023 with an annual budget of $800,000 and ramp up to $1.3B by its fourth year. A companion bill cleared the Senate in April. If passed into law, the effort would provide tremendous resources towards President Biden’s pledge to conserve 30 percent of US lands and waters by 2030 under the America the Beautiful initiative.
However, resistance to even voluntary conservation efforts has been growing across the US West, thanks in large part to a husband-and-wife team based outside of Austin, Texas. It seems there is no corner of contemporary politics immune to the poisons of culture wars, conspiracy theories, and misinformation. Into the cauldron of extremist politics marked by attacks on gay and trans youth, a radical defense of the weapons of mass murder, and a likely national ban on abortion and rollback on women’s rights, we can add a campaign to eliminate the right of the land to exist as anything but a commodity.
Georgetown residents Margaret and Dan Byfield began warning of a coming federal “landgrab” before details of Biden’s plan emerged. The unsubstantiated claims fell on fertile soil in many red pockets of targeted states. Detractors, however, including farmers and ranchers, claim the Byfields are trafficking in misinformation in a self-enrichment scheme parading as protection of landowner rights.
“All they’re trying to do is raise money for their individual salaries by fearmongering,” said self-described life-long conservative Erik Glenn, who serves as executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. “They’re capitalizing on the distrust in government and the divides that this country is currently seeing between urban and rural.”
The Byfields did not respond to two interview requests. But to understand the impact of the Byfields’ efforts, Deceleration interviewed conservationists across the United States. While most didn’t want to be quoted, all expressed concern about how a key tool of their trade—conservation easements used protect land from development—had suddenly become politicized due, in large part, to the couple’s efforts. Landowners enter into these agreements—with land trusts or governmental agencies like the USDA—to help protect lands they want to pass along unpaved to future generations.
One of President Biden’s first acts in office was to put the nation and world on notice that the US was going to—at long last—center the challenges of the climate crisis across all federal agencies and in our domestic and foreign policy. Among the references to decarbonization, renewable energy, and international debt relief in Executive Order 14008 signed a week later was a goal of bringing 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters into some form of conservation protection. The goals cleave to evolving international research increasingly assessing the amount of wild lands needed for the earth to fulfill its life-sustaining functions.
Late last year, Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that included $350M for a wildlife crossings pilot program expected to both help avoid roadway collisions with wildlife while stitching together migration corridors.
While environmental orgs hailed what was initially known as 30×30—which emerged with a pledge to work collaboratively “with State, local, Tribal, and territorial governments, agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen, and other key stakeholders”—many veterans of rural conservation efforts grit their teeth. Against the backdrop of unsubstantiated stolen election claims and toxic hyperpartisan politics, it appeared inevitable that a pledge to more than double the amount of US lands under conservation in such short order would be seized upon as a new front to be exploited in the culture wars.
They were correct.
“Land grab!” cried the Byfields through their property-rights nonprofit American Stewards of Liberty, who post-election recast their historic work fighting against endangered species listings to making a bureaucratic train wreck out of Biden’s conservation vision.
Before the executive order was signed, the Byfields warned in their new Liberty Matters Newsletter that the 2030 goals could only be achieved through the “outright taking the land” or an “immense pressure to comply”—charges echoed in a public letter from 15 Republican governors addressed to Biden earlier this year.
Though criticized by some conservationists for its lack of detail, the Biden plan is thick with the language of cooperation. And while no federal abuses have materialized since the agenda was announced, the Byfields warnings have garnered strong returns.
Utilizing draft language frequently provided by the Byfields, dozens of counties across the West and Midwest have passed nonbinding resolutions opposing America the Beautiful. The couple’s message found its most synergistic spark in Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, who toured that state last year on a “Stop 30×30 Tour” before hosting the Byfields and an assortment of extremists at an Earth Day anti-30×30 conference this year.
“Conspiracy theories, misinformation and mischaracterizations.” That’s how the head of the Nebraska Farmers Union described the effort. But if the Trump years taught us anything, it’s that campaigns built upon conspiracy theories and misinformation can be extremely effective.
A recent survey found that most Nebraskans—even most Nebraska Republicans—want to see more conservation in the state. While only 16 percent of roughly 500 respondents told the Republican polling firm New Bridge Strategy that America the Beautiful would be “bad for Nebraska,” elected county officials in the state are lining up to pass nonbinding resolutions opposing the federal conservation effort—often by unanimous vote.
The war on conservation easements is already making farming and ranching operations a bit more difficult, said David Sands of the Nebraska Land Trust.
In December, the Custer County Board of Supervisors rejected one landowner’s attempt to enter into contract with the US Natural Resources Conservation Service because land conservation was found to be “inconsistent” with a county comprehensive plan that prioritizes agricultural use.
Nebraska is one of a handful of states that allow county governments to approve or reject conservation easements. Its lands are more than 97 percent privately owned.
Promising to use his authority to reject future conservation, Nebraska Governor Ricketts met scattered resistance on one 2021 “Stop 30×30 Tour” stop.
“I can see reasons for being concerned, but on the other side the government has put millions if not billions of dollars into Nebraska and into Gage County,” said Don Schuller, a Gage County Board member and USDA employee. “Every farmer here has accepted federal money to do conservation equivalent … and it’s been beneficial and it’s helped the local economy.
“So aren’t we walking a fine line here by opposing something that we do not know for sure?”
Sands blamed the Byfields for helping light the anti-conservation fire on the Plains. “It’s condescending for someone from Texas to come to Nebraska and tell landowners here what to do,” he told Deceleration.
Governor Ricketts issued an executive order mandating education programs for county officials on the “tax consequences of conservation,” barring state agencies from assisting any voluntary perpetual conservation easement in the state, and placing an 18-month hold on any efforts “expanding the definition of endangered species, plants, or wildlife.”
Conservation easements are legal agreements between a landowner and a government agency or land trust that set aside land to protect its conservation status. Benefits come in the ecosystem services provided by the protected land but also in the dollars paid to the landowners, which can subsequently be spent to repair fences, buy feed for livestock, or paying down debt. There are currently more than 190,000 conservation easements protecting more than 32.7M acres in the US, according to the National Conservation Easement Database.
As documented in the film Deep in the Heart, a film about the natural beauty of Texas that opened this month, conservation easements can also be used to protect land from development in order to protect drinking water for millions.
Voters in San Antonio, for instance, have approved a one-eighth cent sales tax four times since 2000 and keeping more than 150,000 acres largely unpaved and undeveloped to protect their main source of drinking water—the subterranean Edwards Aquifer.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott joined 14 other Republican governors writing President Biden in April to urge him not to expand public lands but instead “focus on better management of the land the federal government already controls.“
Even in areas where wilderness conservation essentially equals economic development, elected leaders at the county level are passing resolutions against America the Beautiful.
Texas’s largest federally protected area—celebrated Big Bend National Park in Far West Texas—is a massive economic stimulator for the distant and lessor-traveled counties of Presidio, Jeff Davis, and Brewster. Like Nebraska, Texas is overwhelmingly privately owned by design. With nearly 96 percent of the state privately owned, the rugged Big Bend serves as a sort of pressure valve for nature lovers across the state and beyond. Texas Monthly writes that a record-breaking 581,000 visitors ventured to this remote outpost last year.
The US National Park Service credits the park for 500 local jobs and $38 million annually directed to local pockets, a return of more than $10 for every $1 invested in the projected lands. Factor in the upriver Big Bend Ranch State Park crossing over into Presidio County—the largest state park in Texas—and sprawling protected areas across the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo in Mexico and conservation lands are clearly the dominant defining character of this pocket of Texas.
If you doubt the importance of this vast wilderness see the consternation that has followed the drying up of the Rio Grande through St. Elena Canyon, a longtime outdoors tourism destination.
So it was a puzzlement when county commissioners in both Jeff Davis and Presidio counties unanimously voted up resolutions last summer opposing 30×30 and, seemingly, conservation as a tool of land management. In preambles that have become familiar to local governments across the US West and Midwest thanks to the work of the Byfields, the commissioners decried preservation as bad for land, stating that conserved lands “are highly susceptible to wildland wildfires, insect infestation and disease, all of which degrades the natural and human environment.”
Permanent conservation protections, they warn, “will cause dramatic and irreversible harm to the economics of many states, including Texas, and in particular rural counties such as Presidio County whose citizens demand on private lands for their livelihoods.”
Betraying its likely origin as a prefab cut-out of the Byfields’s handiwork, the Presidio County draft still reads “[insert area industries]” where the intention is to spotlight specific businesses allegedly harmed by public lands.
How deep such anti-public-lands sentiment actually lie within the elected leaderships of Big Bend is to be determined. A coalition of volunteers operating as Keep Big Bend Wild—with support from Big Bend Park Superintendent Bob Krumenaker—are currently seeking stronger wilderness protections for the national park.
Meanwhile, the Texas Republic Party earlier this month included anti-30×30 messaging in their party’s extremist platform—alongside a call for a state referendum on secession from the Union.
Margaret Byfield, the face of American Stewards, was born into the anti-public lands movement. Her father, Wayne Hage, fought the federal government in court for decades after having cattle seized for grazing on federal lands without a permit. Their complex case contributed to anti-government sentiment that evolved into armed standoffs capturing national attention and helped galvanize the Sagebrush Rebellion. The Hage case seemed to resolve in 2017 when a federal judge finally barred the family from grazing on federal lands and fined them $587,000 for past violations, according to the Associated Press.
Dan Byfield has worked as a registered lobbyist for the Texas Farm Bureau and Farm Credit Bank of Texas.
The couple merged their work in previous nonprofits Stewards of the Range and American Land Foundation to form American Stewards of Liberty, whose mission on their 2019 tax form reads as being to “assist communities in the protection, education and research of property rights.”
To this point, the couple have been happy to stay out of the spotlight.
“We keep our efforts pure and clean,” Dan Byfield told the Austin American-Statesmen back in 2016. The couple, he said, work to avoid “political backlash of any kind.” That may no longer be possible.
In an ad promoting an upcoming August speaking date in Dallas, the couple describe their work as to “confront the radical environmental movement, which believes the administrative state, not individuals, should determine how people use their land.”
Their work on America the Beautiful has the Byfields increasingly enmeshed with a network of insurrectionists linked to the attack on the US Capitol in January 2020, as documented by the watchdog Accountable.US. Supporters include those committed to dissembling and privatizing federal lands while undermining and denying Indigenous sovereignty and tribal rights. Though they all position themselves in the language of individual property rights, one conservation worker wrote in 2018 that these extremist groups are exploiting the cowboy myth as “a distracting cover for an even greater land heist to turn even more of our national inheritance over to commercial exploitation.”
In 2019, the Byfields reported $321,338 in total income for the nonprofit. Of that amount, $276,651 went directly to “salaries, other compensation, employee benefits,” with Dan and Margaret pulling in roughly $100,000 salaries.
The group’s funding has been linked to trusts linked to fossil fuel interests but frequently their salaries are supplemented by taxpayers via county governments who hire the couple as consultants. Utah’s Kane County, for instance, paid the couple nearly $500,000, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. Chavez County, New Mexico, paid the organization nearly $200,000 between 2016 and 2021.
Citing the work of Accountable.US, reporter Brian Maffly writes that the group’s “campaign against Biden’s ’30 by 30′ initiative appears to brazenly flout federal rules for tax-exempt groups, with direct appeals to pressure elected representatives at all levels of government.” On May 21, 2021, the Accountable.US President Kyle Herrig filed a formal complaint alleging ASL has been lobbying in violation of its nonprofit status.
In a report titled “The 30×30 Disinformation Brigade,” the Center for Western Priorities described the circuit-riding Margaret Byfield as an extremist who denies that reality of both the global climate and biodiversity crises and has agreed with comparisons of the America the Beautiful conservation goals with the Stalin’s intentional starving of millions of Ukrainians during the 1930s known as the Holodomor or “Terror Famine.”
Rejection on the range
The couple has also captured the attention of politically conservative ranchers and growers who believe in the importance of conservation easements as another “tool in the toolbelt” for property owners who regularly find ways to weather extreme events like drought, and fire, and flood.
In Montana, Governor Greg Gianforte pledged to fight America the Beautiful efforts—in spite of the fact the state is already more than 37 percent public lands and recent findings that existing conservation easements in the state have directed an estimated $109M to farming and ranching families there since 2014.
While the Byfields are able to tap into existing culture wars antagonisms to score political points, they face an uphill battle with property owners, many said, because conservation easements are remarkably popular.
As the executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, Erik Glenn helps protect more than 700,000 acres working with hundreds of ranching families. He resents Biden’s executive order, saying that existing conservation programs could achieve the goals of the Administration with only more investment (and maybe less attention). What Biden’s order, in Glenn’s mind, achieved was to paint a target on conservation for people like the Byfields to exploit with manufactured outrage.
“In my mind that group is as bad as the 30 by 30 executive order,” he told Deceleration.
The Byfields demonize permanent conservation but discount the danger of sprawling cities that fracture rural landscapes and permanently take land out of agricultural production by converting them, for instance, into more interlocking cul-de-sacs.
“Take a ranch, subdivide it into 20-acre ranchettes, and it’s fragmented forever,” said Nebraska’s Sands. “The only food that will ever grow will be in people’s back yards.”
Governor Ricketts and the Byfields object to the right of landowners to place land into conservation protection “in perpetuity.” But, as the Cattlemen’s Glenn, pointed out, landowners and developers regularly make permanent decisions about their property.
“In Colorado you can sell your water. Landowners sell water that’s been decreed for agricultural use all the time. You never bring that water back to that land. Landowners can sell parcels of their property [for development]. And when that happens that land doesn’t come back,” Glenn said. “So this whole argument that landowners shouldn’t be able to treat development rights effectively on their land similar to other rights and have the freedom to do those things just because it’s perpetual—well all those other things are perpetual too,” he added.
“That’s what’s preposterous to me,” said Glenn. “You’ve got a group that claims to be for private property rights and what they are doing is they are advocating against landowners’ private property rights.”