Biden's climate change plans raise the level of concern for Kansas farmers

Alice Mannette
Pratt Tribune
Kansas farmers are wondering, If it is not about taking land out of production, then where will increased acreage pledged towards conservation under President Biden's new plan come from.

A recent Biden Administration’s Executive Order on climate change is aimed at reducing pollution, promoting a greener environment, and tackling the climate crisis. But the 30 by 30 plan tucked inside that order is raising concern for many Kansas farmers and ranchers.

The 30 by 30 plan is the federal push to conserve 30% of U.S. lands and waters by the year 2030. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, right now about 12% of land in the U.S. is in conservation.

Within the next 10 years, the federal government hopes to transition nearly 440 million acres into federal protection. This would mean that a landform around the size of Texas must be a part of a conservation plan by 2030. 

Farmers across the nation are fearful of what this order means for them. 

On Monday, U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack said absolutely no land will be taken from any farmer or rancher because of this order.

On a call with agricultural journalists, Vilsack said, "There is no intent to take land away from farmers. The goal here is to create new opportunities."

Vilsack said the administration and the USDA want to incentivize farmers and ranchers to use the tools that he has at the USDA to compensate and pay farmers for being good stewards of their land.

"(We want them to) embrace new opportunities and new ways," he said. "None of it involves taking anyone's land or using eminent domain."

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and private landowners have already partnered to protect more than 5 million acres of wetland, grassland and farmland. This represents an area the size of New Jersey. In Kansas, NRCS enrolled more than 162,500 acres, helping achieve this conservation milestone.

For more than 25 years, NRCS has offered voluntary conservation easements through the Farm Bill. This includes the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which helps landowners protect, restore and improve wetlands, grasslands and working farms and ranches through conservation easements. 

Wetland easements totaling more than 2.8 million acres nationwide and slightly more than 31,000 acres in Kansas ‒ improve water quality by filtering sediments and chemicals, reducing flooding, recharging groundwater, protecting biological diversity and providing opportunities for educational, scientific and limited recreational activities.

Agricultural land easements prevent conversion of farms and ranches to non-agricultural uses. These easements are crucial at protecting rangelands and farmsteads from urban encroachment. Easements also can protect floodplains, grasslands and forests. Agricultural land easements, including grassland easements, total more than 1.9 million acres nationwide and slightly less than 91,000 acres in Kansas.

During the next month, the government will evaluate how to best measure and assess the country’s progress toward the 30 by 30 goal. More than 1,300 phone calls were made to the USDA in regard to this plan.

Daniel Devlin, Ph.D., the director of the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment at Kansas State University said many Kansas farmers are already using conservation practices like terracing, not tilling and planting cover crops. 

He said what will be important to note, is what the government is labeling conservation. This is crucial for Kansas as most of the state's land is privately held. 

"It just depends on how you define what conservation is," he said. "Most of our (in Kansas) land is in private lands, range pasture or urban."

The Director of USDA’s Office of Energy and Environmental Policy, within the Office of the Chief Economist, William Hohenstein, said this bill is about conservation and working with other countries to create strong conservation practices.

"The United States has a longstanding legacy of conservation. We have a very strong foundation to build from," Hohensein said. "This (30 by 30) is not about taking land. This is not about restricting land. This is about conservation."