Will Ricketts take fight against conservation to Capitol Hill?

By Jennifer Yachnin | 01/13/2023 06:25 AM EST

As Nebraska governor, Pete Ricketts led state-level efforts against President Joe Biden’s land and water conservation goals.

Pete Ricketts.

Former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R). Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Opponents of the Biden administration’s aggressive conservation goals applauded the selection of former Gov. Pete Ricketts to serve as Nebraska’s newest Senator on Thursday, even as Ricketts offered few hints about whether he will continue to target the environmental program.

Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen (R) on Thursday announced that Ricketts would replace former Sen. Ben Sasse (R), who stepped down to become the University of Florida’s president.

Ricketts, a Republican who preceded Pillen in the state’s top office before facing term limits, is expected to be sworn in Jan. 23 (Greenwire, Jan. 12).


At a news conference Thursday to announce the appointment, Ricketts didn’t address conservation issues, instead focusing on priorities such as defense and improving the government’s interactions with people and companies.

“We’ve got to hold Washington, D.C., accountable for the waste and the fraud and make sure that we’re running government more like a business, just like we’ve done here in Nebraska,” he said.

Pillen said he prioritized protecting farming interests in his selection process for the seat.

“It’s really important that the appointee knows what drives this state: agriculture,” he said. “We are the breadbasket of the world. There’s nobody that feeds the people of the world better than we do in Nebraska.”

But in his second term in office, Ricketts made opposition to the Biden administration’s conservation goals a major focus of his work.

President Joe Biden’s “America the Beautiful” program aims to preserve 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030 in an attempt to preserve biodiversity, respond to climate change and increase access to the outdoors. The program is more commonly known as 30×30.

The White House program will rely not only on federal investments in open spaces and urban parks, but also on private efforts like conservation easements on working lands including ranches and farms (Greenwire, May 6, 2021).

Long opposition to effort

Ricketts has framed the White House’s efforts as “nefarious,” arguing the conservation push is little more than a backdoor to seize private lands.

“This not a one-and-done battle — this is going to last a long time,” Ricketts said last year at a “Stop 30×30” event organized by the American Stewards of Liberty, which advocates for property rights (Greenwire, May 2, 2022).

Ricketts himself issued an executive order in June 2021 titled “Stop 30×30 — Protect Our Land & Water,” which mandated a series of workshops from the state Department of Revenue to educate county officials about conservation and preservation easements and how to block them.

In a statement to E&E News, American Stewards of Liberty Executive Director Margaret Byfield congratulated Ricketts, characterizing him as a “strong defender of property rights.”

“As Governor, he was the first to oppose 30×30 and led his colleagues in a letter to the President, noticing the administration that the states would not tolerate the federal overreach,” Byfield said.

She credited Ricketts with the Biden administration’s decision to brand its conservation pledge as “American the Beautiful,” although the White House program includes a third aspect — outdoor access — not typically included in 30×30 advocacy.

Byfield added: “We look forward to his leadership in the Senate and his continued defense of [Americans’] constitutional right to own and use their land.”

‘Unprecedented and … unprofessional’

Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen said Nebraska’s federal lawmakers should seek more federal funding for conservation programs popular with farmers and ranchers in the state, but he did not express optimism given Ricketts’ past criticisms.

“It’ll be very interesting to see what Sen. Ricketts does, but what Gov. Ricketts did was unprecedented and it was unprofessional and it was purely partisan, and it all came at the expense of our voluntary conservation cost-share program history and utilization,” Hansen said in an interview with E&E News.

Hansen called Ricketts’ criticism of 30×30 a “disservice” to the state’s agricultural industry, noting that among the first major pieces of legislation the new Senator will likely be involved in is the upcoming Farm Bill.

Center for American Progress senior fellow Drew McConville said he remains hopeful that Ricketts will drop his criticism of the conservation program.

“Hopefully the incoming Senator will have better things to do in Washington than spread misinformation and stoke fear,” McConville said.

He added: “America has a proud tradition of working cooperatively to conserve the lands and water our communities value, and those values hold strong today. It’s hard to imagine the Senator will find it a productive use of time to undermine one of the nation’s most indisputably popular and bipartisan issues.”

Ricketts, first elected in 2014, previously led TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., the stock trading and financial services firm founded by his father, Joe Ricketts. He is a part owner of Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs, along with other members of his family.

Before winning the governor’s mansion, he made a failed 2006 bid for the Senate, losing to then-Sen. Ben Nelson (D).

Reporter Timothy Cama contributed.