Margaret Byfield wasn’t going to wait for actual information. She’d quickly concluded that the Biden administration’s goal of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, known informally as “30x30,” was a “massive federal land grab” in the making. What she needed now were soldiers for her opposition campaign. The more powerful, the better.
Byfield, the executive director of American Stewards of Liberty, a fringe, right-wing organization that has ties to the fossil fuel industry and has become a magnet for anti-federal land zealots, would find her star in Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Before long, American Stewards built a cozy relationship with Ricketts’ office — one that catapulted the Republican governor to the very top of a growing and successful anti-30x30 disinformation campaign.
Internal communications HuffPost obtained via a public record request to Ricketts’ office show Byfield acting as a shadow adviser of the governor, not only on 30x30 but other environmental policy issues. She even played a direct role in crafting an executive order the governor signed in late June aimed at preventing President Joe Biden from implementing his 30x30 plan in Nebraska.
One of the governor’s top aides, Taylor Gage, was in regular contact with Byfield between February and November of last year. The two kept one another abreast of their anti-30x30 efforts and shared materials ahead of a series of town halls the governor held around the state to “raise awareness about the threat 30x30 poses to our way of life here in Nebraska.” They also strategized about dealing with reporters and which media outlets could best help them get their message out.
Byfield’s emails include language resembling what a top-ranking staffer might say: things like “we need to respond” and “I don’t think we need to comment on this.” At one point she acted as a liaison between Ricketts’ office and fellow 30x30 foe Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), requesting and apparently securing a statement from Ricketts in support of Boebert’s legislation aimed at blocking the Biden 30x30 pledge.
On Friday, which is Earth Day, American Stewards will sponsor a “STOP 30x30 Summit” in Lincoln, Nebraska — what Byfield has described as “the most important conference” her group has ever organized. It will be a who’s who of land transfer proponents, climate change deniers, conservation foes and sympathizers of anti-government extremists.
A release about the summit that went out last month boasted that it will “spoil environmentalist’s [sic] Earth Day” and “send the clear message that America’s landowners would not be ‘voluntarily’ surrendering their property rights to the environmental agenda.”
Ricketts is hosting the event and will share the stage with Byfield, Boebert, Trump-era Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, anti-federal land Utah state Rep. Ken Ivory (R) and other leading figures of the anti-30x30 movement.
The event’s sponsors include three of the nation’s fiercest proponents of climate change denialism — the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, The Heritage Foundation, and The Heartland Institute — and Protect the Harvest, a pro-agriculture, anti-animal rights group founded by oil tycoon Forrest Lucas.
Lucas and Protect the Harvest played an outsized role in securing President Donald Trump’s pardons for Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr. and Steven Hammond, the father-son Oregon ranchers whose arson conviction sparked the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Byfield, Ricketts’ office and Gage, who is now executive director of the Nebraska Republican Party, did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
And American Stewards was selective about which media can attend the “most important conference” in its history: The organization denied HuffPost credentials to cover it.
30x30 And The Right’s Deceptive War
Biden’s 30x30 target is in line with a proposed United Nations framework for protecting biodiversity amid the deepening extinction and climate crises, and has growing support within the global scientific community.
A week after taking office, Biden followed through on a campaign promise and set 30x30 as a national goal. His executive order established a process for engaging with a broad range of stakeholders, from states and Native American tribes to farmers and anglers, to get input about how best to achieve the 30% target. (Approximately 12% of all U.S. lands are now permanently protected, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.)
There is absolutely nothing to suggest the plan, which the administration has since branded “America the Beautiful,” will involve confiscating property or deceptive tactics to gain control of private land. In an initial report outlining its vision for protecting and restoring 30% of lands and waters by the end of the decade, the Biden administration committed to “collaboration, support for voluntary and locally led conservation and honoring of Tribal sovereignty and private property rights.”
The overall lack of detail in Biden’s initial directive, however, allowed paranoia and conspiratorial thinking to permeate conservative circles. Almost immediately, American Stewards labeled 30x30 a “land grab” and warned its audience that the Biden initiative “hands the powers of the Federal regulatory agencies to a movement that has been working to abolish private property for decades.”
Within weeks, Ricketts would be a top soldier in the anti-30x30 movement.
According to the documents obtained by HuffPost, American Stewards began to communicate with Ricketts’ staffer within weeks of Biden’s order. On Feb. 17, 2021, Byfield received an email from Tanya Storer, a rancher and commissioner in rural Cherry County, Nebraska, who’d recently asked her to help fight a proposed conservation easement at a private ranch in the area.
Storer informed Byfield that she’d recently discussed the 30x30 initiative with her “friend” and “colleague” Gage, then the governor’s director of strategic communications, and wanted to introduce the two of them so they could coordinate a time for Byfield to sit down with Ricketts. “I am anxious for the two of you to visit,” Storer wrote.
In a response the following day, Byfield expressed her interest in briefing Ricketts on Biden’s “very concerning” effort. She declared that the president’s team had been “populated by the extreme faction of the environmental movement.” And she shared materials with Gage that her small nonprofit had put together on 30x30, including “fact sheets” and model resolutions that local governments could pass to oppose the program.
“We believe States and local governments need to speak out against this,” Byfield wrote to Gage. “Land ownership and management should not be dictated from Washington, D.C., but should be determined at the local level.”
Byfield met with Ricketts at the state capitol in Lincoln on March 10, emails show. And soon after, Ricketts was publicly echoing Byfield’s “land grab” rhetoric and other anti-30x30 talking points.
“When the agriculture secretary [Tom Vilsack] says it’s not a land grab, then you know it is a land grab,” Ricketts told a crowd at one of his anti-30x30 town hall meetings back in June. Projected on a screen behind him was an image of a remote road beneath storm clouds and the words “30x30 LAND GRAB.” It was taken straight from American Stewards’ website.
American Stewards of Liberty was formed in 2009, but it has its roots in the anti-government Sagebrush Rebellion movement that started in the 1970s and sought to remove lands from federal control. One of its precursors is Stewards of the Range, which was established in 1992 to defend Byfield’s father, Nevada rancher and sagebrush rebel Wayne Hage, who battled with the Forest Service for years over unpermitted grazing on public lands — a prequel of sorts to the armed standoff at Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s ranch that gave rise to an extremist militia movement.
American Stewards is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The majority of its revenue comes from donations, major gifts, and income from trainings, speaking fees and consulting contracts with local governments. Between 2015 and 2019, Kane County, Utah, paid the organization $483,000 for land-use consulting and legal services, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. Over that same five-year period, Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust, two groups that received millions from the fossil fuel moguls Charles and David Koch and have funneled huge amounts of dark money to climate change denial and other conservative causes, gave American Stewards at least $170,000, according to the Center for Media and Democracy.
Byfield and her husband are the organization’s only full-time employees. In 2019, the most recent year for which tax information is available, their combined salaries accounted for $192,381 of a total of $308,647 in spending.
On its website, the organization says it is “dedicated to protecting private property rights, defending the use of our land, and restoring local control.” In the past, fulfilling that mission has largely consisted of consulting at the county level on land management issues, working to get imperiled species removed from the federal endangered species list and contesting environmental rules.
But when Biden dropped his 30x30 plan in early 2021, the group latched on and didn’t let go. It has fought the conservation target with a blend of misinformation, conspiracy theories and fear-mongering, as the left-leaning Center for Western Priorities exhaustively detailed in a report earlier this week. Some have questioned if the group’s anti-30x30 campaign flouts federal rules for tax-exempt nonprofits.
At a recent appearance before the San Juan County Commission in New Mexico, Byfield declared that private land is a “major target” of 30x30 and that “the ultimate goal is to eliminate use of the land.”
Other rhetoric has been completely outlandish. At one of her anti-30x30 training sessions in South Dakota, Byfield promptly agreed when an attendee compared 30x30 to the Holodomor, a man-made famine that occurred in Ukraine during Soviet Union dictator Josef Stalin’s rule and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3.9 million people.
At that same event, Trent Loos, a Nebraska rancher and radio show host who served on former President Donald Trump’s agricultural advisory committee and now helps American Stewards with its campaign, compared 30x30 to Nazi Germany.
And in its guide on how states, counties and local landowners can fight 30x30, American Stewards claims that “there is no credible scientific reasoning or facts that support the need to preserve any specific amount of land to ‘cure’ climate change.”
Ricketts parroted that claim in a June interview with conservative radio host Dana Loesch, saying 30x30 is “not based on any science or data.”
The world’s premier climate research body disagrees. In a sweeping report on climate impacts and vulnerability earlier this year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that “maintaining the resilience of biodiversity and ecosystem services at a global scale depends on effective and equitable conservation of approximately 30% to 50% of Earth’s land, freshwater and ocean areas.”
In many ways, American Stewards’ opposition push has already been a huge success. The group stoked fear in rural communities across the West and Midwest, elevating its own brand in the process. It convinced dozens of local government bodies to pass its prefabricated resolutions opposing 30x30: To date, more than 130 counties and other localities across 13 states have adopted the model resolutions, according to a tally on American Stewards’ website.
And a growing number of Republican lawmakers and allied right-wing organizations are peddling the group’s talking points and working to drum up opposition.
But few have proven themself a bigger champion of the cause than Ricketts. Center for Western Priorities dubbed him “the political hub of 30x30 disinformation.”
A Direct Line To Ricketts
In early April, about a month after Byfield briefed Ricketts at the state Capitol, she checked in with Gage, her contact in the governor’s office, to see how the letter he was spearheading against 30x30 was coming along. In an email to Gage, Byfield noted that she was going to be holding anti-30x30 events in Oklahoma, Montana and South Dakota in the coming weeks and offered to lend a hand if Gage needed to secure signatures from the governors of those states.
While the emails do not indicate that Gage took her up on that offer or that Byfield was involved in crafting the opposition letter, they do show that Byfield had advance knowledge of Ricketts’ actions.
“Governors have been responding positively,” Gage wrote. “I expect the final letter by April 16th.”
A couple of weeks later, on April 21, Gage sent Byfield the finalized letter that Ricketts and 14 other Republican governors, including those from Oklahoma, Montana and South Dakota, had sent to Biden. In it, the group outlined their concerns and speculated that 30x30 would violate private property rights and damage local economies.
Byfield praised the letter and thanked Ricketts for his leadership. She also informed Gage that she’d spoken earlier that day with a Fox News reporter who was pitching a story on 30x30 and offered to send the journalist the governors’ letter and Gage’s contact information.
“Go for it!” Gage replied. “We’d be happy to go on Fox News to discuss.”
Later that day, Byfield emailed the Fox reporter to connect him with Gage, who she described as “very well versed on 30x30.” When the reporter hadn’t reached out to Ricketts’ staff a week later, Byfield pondered “if it would be worthwhile to have some op-eds ready to go regardless of the direction of the story.”
“Thinking we should try to take advantage of the national spotlight,” she told Gage.
“I agree - we would be happy to team up on an op-ed,” Gage replied.
The two brainstormed which outlets to target, including Fox News and The Wall Street Journal, but HuffPost could find no record of Ricketts publishing an opinion in either publication. He did, however, publish at least five columns about 30x30. The columns are circulated to all Nebraska papers and often get published.
It wasn’t the only time that Byfield and Gage brainstormed media strategy. When a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald reached out to Byfield in early June to ask about her organization’s view of the Sagebrush Rebellion and the Bundy family’s government resistance, Byfield pinged Gage to ask if the reporter was “honest” and worth talking to.
“I would just provide him written comment at this point,” Gage advised. “If he follows up again, we can visit further.”
Byfield took his advice.
It was around that same time in June that a reporter at the Daily Beast contacted the governor’s team to inquire about its relationship with American Stewards. Ricketts’ office pretended it had little if any knowledge of the right-wing group. “Reached for comment, Ricketts’ office requested more information on American Stewards,” the Daily Beast reported.
By then, Gage had been consulting with American Stewards’ executive director about 30x30 for nearly four months. He’d already invited Byfield to speak on a panel about 30x30 at a 2-day agricultural summit the governor would host the following month — an invitation that Byfield promptly accepted. And Byfield was already pulling strings in the governor’s office to advance her own agenda.
This influence is particularly clear in Ricketts’ executive order on 30x30 — the first of its kind in any state.
In an email on May 27, Byfield flagged language in an order from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland that directed members of a newly created climate task force to collaborate and coordinate with states and local authorities. Byfield stressed that the provision could be a “powerful tool” for Nebraska to fight 30x30 and suggested a coordination provision be included in Ricketts’ upcoming executive order.
When Gage circulated a “confidential one pager” in early June, Byfield drew attention to a Nebraska statute that requires all conservation and preservation easements to receive approval from the local county board or other appropriate government body. And she suggested the governor task the director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture with making sure the U.S. Department of Agriculture was aware of requirements under state law.
“We may even consider providing some recommended language for this,” she wrote.
Ricketts’ executive order on 30x30, signed on June 24, has Byfield’s fingerprints all over it. The directive instructs the Nebraska Department of Revenue to “advise counties of their rights in reviewing conservation easements” pursuant to the statute Byfield underscored in her email. It designates Nebraska’s agricultural director as the state coordinator for the federal climate task force that Haaland established in her secretarial order. And it directs the state agriculture director to “coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure that the USDA is seeking proper local approvals for conservation easements” related to federal programs.
Byfield was present at the signing ceremony.
After months of backroom collaboration, the governor’s relationship with American Stewards became increasingly public. In September, Ricketts interviewed Byfield for a full hour on his podcast. Among other things, the two argued that an Interior Department fact sheet on 30x30 had lifted statistics — including that 1 million species are now at risk of extinction and that the U.S. is losing a football field-sized area of nature to development every 30 seconds — from a 2019 Center for American Progress report. (The extinction statistic is from a United Nations report. The loss of nature estimate is from a report that the Center for American Progress commissioned but that was conducted by Conservation Science Partners, a California-based science nonprofit.)
“If they were writing a high school paper, they would have gotten a D for plagiarism,” chuckled Ricketts, whose public comments and writings have repeatedly mirrored those of American Stewards.
Byfield and Gage remained in close contact through November. Then, suddenly, communication between the governor’s office and American Stewards stopped, according to records provided to HuffPost. When pressed about whether the governor’s office had complied with HuffPost’s requested date range, an adviser to the governor responded, “I presume the break in communication was likely due the resignation of Taylor Gage, Strategic Communications Specialist, on Dec. 3, 2021.”
Gage was undoubtedly Byfield’s primary contact in Ricketts’ office. Still, internal emails indicate that Byfield and the governor’s office had started strategizing off-email long before Gage’s departure out of concern that their discussions could be made public via a records request.
Byfield warned Gage about a watchdog group, Accountable.US, that had been filing records requests for American Stewards’ communications with counties in numerous states — “Your office may receive a similar request,” she wrote — and scrutinizing the group’s tax status. Accountable.US filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service in May accusing the group of violating its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status by lobbying against 30x30 at the federal, state and local levels.
In another back-and-forth in September, Gage flagged a USDA announcement about $75 million in investments for climate-smart agriculture and forestry projects on private lands, including one in Nebraska.
“We need to respond...,” Byfield wrote. “Have several thoughts of what needs to go into this, but they are strategic and should not be subject to a [Freedom of Information Act] request. We could either visit by phone, or, loop in an attorney for the state so we trigger the attorney client privilege. Thoughts?”
“Would you have time for a Zoom next week?” Gage asked.