It started as a research project. University of Nebraska landscape architecture professor Kim Wilson asked her students in 2016 to brainstorm a way to increase tourism in Red Cloud, Neb., the childhood home of renowned writer Willa Cather, just north of the Kansas border.
The class found that more than 255 historic sites dot the sweeping Kansas and Nebraska farmland and prairies surrounding Red Cloud, where a national center draws literary fans eager to visit the place Cather described in her early 20th century novels.
Wilson met with others interested in the area’s history during the next few years, and they decided to try to gain National Heritage Area status as a way to bring more visitors to the struggling rural region. The designation, granted by the National Park Service, provides branding to highlight an area’s historic sites and up to $1 million per year in federal matching funds.
“It’s like a no-brainer,” she said.
What they couldn’t have guessed is that their proposal would wind up vilified by local property owners in the largely Republican area as a federal land grab, engineered by bureaucrats and politicians in Washington, D.C.
And when President Joe Biden took office in January and signed an executive order directing his administration to come up with a plan to conserve 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030, the scattering of Kansas and Nebraska counties turned into ground zero for pushback to what’s known as the 30×30 plan.
Opponents organized against the National Heritage designation, in town meetings throughout the region—attended by hundreds, by some estimates—and via social media. Local newspapers ran articles and letters.
The same kinds of fears and accusations are surfacing already across the West and in Congress, though Biden’s 30×30 plan released earlier this month goes to great lengths to stress collaboration with local landowners and voluntary initiatives.
“There is absolutely nothing in 30 x 30 that says ‘we are going to take Kansas’ that I have seen,” Angel Cushing, an organizer opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska proposal, wrote in a Facebook message to States Newsroom. “However, if you were the Department of Interior looking to increase federal land. You would probably go after the dwindling population where there is a federal management plan already set up.”
At a May 5 forum, U.S. House Republican members of the Natural Resources Committee called 30×30 a federal land grab.
“We know that the 30×30 initiative will trample on property rights and extort private lands,” U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, (R-Colo.), said.
Suspicion around Red Cloud about the National Heritage Area designation was strong even before the administration proposed its conservation plan. But the Biden 30×30 executive order gave opponents even more ammunition, Wilson said.
“This has nothing to do with 30×30,” Wilson said. “They globbed everything they could onto this. And it was just bad timing that 30×30 came out. And 30×30 is being misrepresented by this same group.”
Law signed by Reagan
Since former President Ronald Reagan signed the law creating the program in 1984, the National Park Service has designated 55 National Heritage Areas, including one straddling the Kansas-Missouri border and the entire state of Tennessee.
Federal involvement in maintaining the areas is light, with local nonprofits, universities, museums and governments responsible for decision-making and the National Park Service playing a coordinating role.
Though every federal dollar has to be matched by a private or local government, the return on those dollars is more than five to one, Wilson said in an interview.
But as she and her allies began building the effort — establishing a nonprofit, seeking funding for a feasibility study and other preliminary steps before they even started selling the idea to the public — another group, loosely organized through Facebook, sprouted up, concerned the project would open the door to a federal takeover of private property. Read more