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Proposal, presidential order raise rural Kansans’ concerns about land ownership rights

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 9:03 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - A group opposed to the formation of a National Heritage Area in north central Kansas and south central Nebraska on Thursday, April 15, wrapped up a series of town hall meetings.

Thursday evening, more than 300 people filed into an event center in Norton as speakers said getting the designation of “a heritage area” would interfere with private land ownership rights. The main goal of a heritage area would be to attract tourism to local museums, parks and attractions by allowing them to access federal dollars. The group behind it says it would not impact private property rights or impose regulations on land use.

Some landowners question if such a designation would have much impact.

“We’re not going to get that many tourists coming in. We have people now, but it’s not going to increase it that much,” said Norton County landowner Kathy Wilmot. “But what you’re going to see (is) a lot of money being raised by different non-governmental groups or organizations to try and supposedly preserve these areas.”

Wilmot said she lives on land that’s been in her family for about 150 years.

“And we own that ground and it’s very important to us,” she said.

That’s why she was among the crowd opposed to the plans for the designation of the National Heritage Area in north central Kansas and south central Nebraska and attended Thursday’s meeting, the last of several organized by the Western Regional Property Rights Coalition which seeks to grow opposition to a National Heritage Area.

But Kansas-Nebraska Area Partnership, the group seeking the Congressional designation, said it would not interfere with private property owners’ rights. The partnership started in 2016, developing plans for a National Heritage Area covering 49 counties. Administered through the National Park Service, it allows access to federal dollars. The partnership said it does not impact private land ownership and rights or any controls on land use.

The partnership added that it also is not connected to another big concern for some Kansas farmers and ranchers, an order from President Joe Biden, which could potentially expand federally-protected land onto private property. The order which has created some confusion is called the “30 by 30 Initiative.” The executive order the president signed seeks to conserve 30 percent of the nation’s land and coastal area by 2030.

For the National Heritage Area to be formed, it would first need to be approved on the local level by the counties involved before Congress can sign off on the designation.

Senators Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran have both voiced opposition to the “30 by 30 Initiative,” but nor now, Marshall said he is not getting involved with the National Heritage Area discussion “until after sufficient local support for the proposal has been proven.

“The National Park Service’s National Heritage Areas program help regions tell their story and highlights the cultural significance of their past,” Senator Marshall said in a statement on his U.S. Senate website. “As a Republican, I believe in local control and local decision making whenever possible. It is up to the communities included in the proposed National Heritage Area to determine the future of this proposal.

In response to the “30 by 30 Initiative, Senator Moran issued a letter on April 1, expressing his opposition to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland “to any plan that would undermine private property rights.”

“I strongly oppose President Biden’s executive order directing his administration to recommend steps to permanently conserve 30 percent of lands and waters in the United States,” a statement from Moran said. “This plan, commonly referred to as the 30 by 30 initiative, threatens to result in overreach by the federal government, and I have made clear my opposition to any effort that would undermine private property rights or significantly expand federally-owned land.”

Senator Marshall released a statement with a similar message, calling on President Biden “to respect private property rights of America’s farms and ranchers. Marshall also sent a letter to the president, “asking him to reconsider his directive to conserve at least 30 percent of our private lands and waters by 2030.”

“As you know, land ownership is a core right protected by the Constitution… Considering there is just under 900 million acres of agricultural land in the United States, I must assume that agriculture will be a target of your initiative,” Marshall wrote. “Farmers and ranchers are the original conservationists and generational farming is on the forefront of every producer’s mind… I ask that you respect and acknowledge the private property rights of individuals so they may continue to have authority over what occurs on their property and have the freedom to produce an abundance of food, fuel, and fiber for the world. I urge you to ensure that this doesn’t threaten productive land that will be necessary to feed an ever-growing world population.”

You can read the full text of his letter here.

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