I am a rancher, an outdoorsman and an advocate for conservation. Many think these descriptions are in opposition to one another, but I do not. I ranch and farm in southern Colorado, in the upper Rio Grande watershed just a few miles from the New Mexico border. I sit on the board of my local land trust, in addition to several boards and committees aimed at boosting my local community’s quality of life. As we lose more and more land to unsuitable development, we are watching the ground shift beneath our feet as we speak, and now is the time for action.
I support the Biden administration’s and, recently, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s goal to conserve 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030, known as the 30x30 initiative — and I’m not alone in the agriculture community. I see the goals of this initiative as not only helping our planet’s environmental sustainability but also our rural communities and citizens. For far too long, our policies and economy have been exploiting the resources of our wild spaces and our rural populations, endangering the water, the soil and the next generations’ hope for their families to make a living in these places. We have sent our timber, our crops and our ores to the cities of the world only to watch our kids leave and never return.
What we in rural communities know is now is the time to act before we lose our lands and waters for good — and the Biden administration and our governor are acknowledging that.
I have heard a few loud voices claiming this initiative is an overreach by our federal government aimed at stealing our private property rights. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Conservation on private lands has always been a voluntary decision, and it will remain so under this new effort.
Many landowners choose a conservation easement as a last-ditch effort to save a generational operation because the margins have been so slim for too long. Expanding and improving the value of conservation on private land with the leverage of the federal government could reap real gains for landowners who voluntarily choose to pursue such action.
The common framing of the conflict around conservation puts grazers, loggers and miners at odds with those who care about clean water, air and wildlife. In our rural communities, we know this oversimplification is unhelpful at best, and at worst can pit neighbor against neighbor.
My neighbors make up a diverse group of those who work on the land; from the Forest Service ranger to the permit-holding grazer, the cropland irrigator to the fly fisherman, the rural clinic nurse to the river-sluicing miner. The 30x30 plan emboldens local communities with the flexibility to act in favor of these wild spaces and the economies that grow out of them.
Most ranchers I know care about the places in which they live and work. They know the names of the mountains that surround them, the grasses that grow in their fields and the wildlife that roam freely on their land. Some of the most popular programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are conservation programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.
Many of these programs have waiting lists and would have even more acres enlisted in them if the funding was there to do so. Finding opportunities in rural America to continue agribusiness while enjoying nature is why most folks live in the West. I do not want to have to sell off housing tracts on my land to pass the remaining acres to my children. Getting real value into my hands to keep my land productive for society and our environment is something I would sign up for in a heartbeat.
I care about the health of my ecosystem, my community, my water, my air, my food and the list goes on. For this reason, it is time to invest to conserve our lands beyond the city limit sign — before it is too late.