In Montana, National Heritage Area movement faces new boogeyman

October 30, 2021
A billboard in opposition to the Big Sky Country National Heritage Area is posted along I-15 in between Great Falls and Ulm.
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  • President Joe Biden announced plans earlier this year to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 to combat climate change.
  • The ongoing push for a Big Sky County National Heritage Area in Montana is not tied to the Biden administration’s 30×30 plan, according to the group’s chair.
  • Since 1985, 55 NHAs have been established in the U.S. – including former President Donald Trump adding six when he signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act in 2019.

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — On a rainy October evening, about 20 people filed into the ballroom at the Heritage Inn for a presentation – not a mask in sight. 

It was the day after the New York Times published a story on the misinformation campaign around the Big Sky County National Heritage Area that swept through this northern Montana city in 2020 and saw a summer resurgence

But they weren’t there to talk about that. They were there to learn about what was advertised as the “30×30 Land Grab,” another conspiracy surrounding the federal government and land acquisition that emerged following announcement of a goal by President Joe Biden’s administration to conserve 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 to combat climate change. Currently, about 12% of U.S. lands and 11% of freshwater ecosystems are protected. 

The administration’s goal was included in an executive order issued in January with scant details. Months later, the National Climate Task Force published a preliminary report titled “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” that outlined principles toward achieving the goal but not much about how it will follow through on them.

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That ambiguity presented fertile ground for Margaret Byfield of American Stewards of Liberty, a nonprofit “working to protect private property rights and the liberties they secure,” per the organization’s website.

The Colorado Sun reported the organization received $170,000 between 2015 and 2019 from DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which serves to muddy the waters of political donations from right-wing billionaire donors including the Koch brothers, the DeVos family and others.

ASL had already made presentations in multiple states against Biden’s 30×30 plan, including in Montana, by the time Byfield arrived in Great Falls.

“This is not about conservation,” Byfield told the group of Montanans, claiming the program was from socialist countries, that the models used in climate science are “informed with bias” and funded with money from George Soros, a billionaire who often donates to democratic causes. “This is about control.” 

She also claimed private land was a “target” in the plan and that it would be “naive” to believe conservation easements would allow property owners to retain control of the land.

After Biden was elected, Byfield told the group, he began exploring environmental policies. She was interrupted by a loud voice in the crowd: “He wasn’t elected!”

‘Coordination’ against President Joe Biden’s 30×30 goal

The 30×30 plan is supported by 73 countries around the world that have pledged to conserve 30% of their lands by 2030. The initiative was launched in 2018 with a billion-dollar donation by the Washington, D.C.-based foundation of Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss native now living in Wyoming, according to his foundation’s website.

In bringing her presentation to Great Falls, Byfield hoped to foster a grassroots movement to push local officials to oppose 30 x 30. She noted other communities and states have already drafted resolutions in opposition – including four counties in Montana.

While Montana’s Greg Gianforte was among 15 Republican governors who signed a letter to Biden questioning his authority to conserve 30% of lands, adding that it would infringe on property rights and hurt the economy, the mayors of Bozeman, Helena and Missoula – three of the largest cities in the Big Sky State – have signed a letter of support for the initiative.

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In Nebraska, meanwhile, Gov. Pete Ricketts in June passed his own executive order in opposition, which among other objectives, sets up trainings to help local governments push back against 30×30. 

Inside the Heritage Inn ballroom, Byfield encouraged people to attend a $50 “coordination class” the following day. On its website, ASL describes coordination as “a process for reconciliation of conflicts between federal and local policies” that provides “local government with an equal seat at the negotiating table.” 

She highlighted a previous “coordination” meeting with local officials at the U.S border with Mexico, claiming the Texas Department of Emergency Management had been spurred to cooperate without specifying how that cooperation led to change.

As she finished, Byfield asked for donations to financially support ASL. Her slide presentation included a photo of a postcard reading “Give $30 to fight to Land Grab!” and advertised memberships running from $35 to $1,000.

Executive compensation accounted for 63% of the organization’s 2019 tax filing, with Byfield and her husband Dan earning a total of $192,381.

The influence of political ‘innuendo’ in Big Sky debate

How, or if, the National Heritage Area debate relates to the Biden’s administration’s 30×30 plan appears a matter of political belief.

Jane Weber, chair of the nonprofit working to bring NHA designation to Cascade and Chouteau counties in Montana, told the Great Falls Tribune of the USA TODAY Network that the 30×30 goal was unrelated.

“There are people that attempt to tie them together, but they’re not part of NHA designation,” Weber said. 

She pointed to a 2004 Government Office of Accountability report that read, in part: “Heritage area officials, Park Service headquarters and regional staff, and representatives of national property rights groups that we contacted were unable to provide us with any examples of a heritage area directly affecting – positively or negatively – private property values or use.”

“It’s just unfortunate that the political climate right now uses innuendo to try to sway people’s minds on something that is a good thing to build economic development for our communities and help us with people who want to do something about interpretation or the preservation of historic buildings and historic places, and historic stories and our culture,” Weber said. 

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The Congressional Research Service describes NHAs as partnerships among the National Park Service, states and local communities, in which the NPS supports conservation through federal recognition, seed money and technical assistance. Since 1985, 55 NHAs have been established across the U.S. – including former President Donald Trump adding six in 2019 when he signed the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act.

“Unlike lands within the National Park System, which are federally owned and managed, lands within heritage areas typically remain in state, local, or private ownership or a combination thereof,” a CRS report from March of 2021 read. 

Byfield stirred doubt during a question-and-answer following her presentation in Great Falls.

When asked about any relation between the NHA initiative and the 30×30 plan, Byfield said, “These little innocuous things that ‘this really isn’t any impact to your private property,’ ‘you can opt out of it,’ ‘this is just to help, you know, promote tourism,’ all of these kinds of things. Those are the things you have to really be careful about.”

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She added, “Anytime there’s going to be any kind of federal oversight, federal funding tied to it, federal management, National Park Service, you have to be very concerned especially, under the Biden administration, because we know what their ultimate agenda is.” 

Byfield’s message resonated with Rae Grulkowski, a local activist against the NHA who was prominently featured in the Times story.

“Don’t look down on the liberal news because they did this, this, that, the other,” Grulkowski told the group. “Let’s pick it apart and get the good stuff going out in the community, use the energy, educate yourself and educate your community members, family and friends.”

Nicole Girten is a government watchdog reporter at the Great Falls Tribune. You can email her at [email protected] 



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