More than 125 years ago, the federal government gave land to homesteaders in Western Kansas. Today, some are wondering if the federal government isn’t trying to take the land back. Through the use of federal agencies, special interests are forcing regulations that can devastate rural economies and cripple land development, but a coalition to protect Western Kansans is entering the fight.
By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
For decades, perhaps even more than a century, farmers are the rural community members who have had to deal with government regulations more than their small-town neighbors.
And while the scenic plains dotted with the occasional farmhouse, windmill or pumping rig already seem to be a perfect place for nature to thrive and survive, a quiet battle has been brewing out of public view that has allowed regulators and independent government offices restrict these farmers and the communities they call home.
The lesser prairie chicken may be the poster bird for the issue, but the roots for the battle of land rights runs much deeper, and 31 Western Kansas counties have recognized the common challenge to their economies and way of life. They have united to form the Kansas Natural Resources Coalition in an effort to push back against an effort to take rights way from landowners and destroy the local tax base by to trying to stave off the economic destruction of Western Kansas.
The KNRC has only existed for a year. Its purpose: To counter regulations and government entities that have been restricting private use of lands claiming environmental concerns.
According to Ken Klemm, president of the KNRC, the war being waged against rural interests has become a “progressive blitzkrieg,” and the rural citizens are only beginning to realize the damage being done.
At a Thursday meeting in Garden City, the KNRC shared data with representatives from the 31-county region that showed how federal agencies are blurring state lines by creating habitat districts and other subdivisions that cross state lines and establish restrictions and fines that may conflict with local and state laws.
Once the fines have been imposed, there is no judge or jury to hear an appeal. The executive branch uses its independent authority against the landowner.
With the listing of the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, and subsequent restrictions that have caused disruptions in the oil and gas industry and farmers by restricting when the time of day they can access their own equipment and land, a coalition began to form to confront the issue that could have potentially devastating effects on the Western Kansas economy.
“We started KNRC with the lesser prairie chicken listing through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” KNRC Executive Director Jim Carlson said. “We started approaching counties about the process of coordination and that caught on in March of 2013.”
The group continued to add counties throughout the summer, and by the fall, it was recognized by the USFWS as a representative group in coordination between the counties.
The group has collected statistics and data in an effort to work in partnership between the local units of government and the federal government agencies.
Despite providing documentation that either contradicted the government’s findings or data that showed due process was not followed, some of the state and federal agencies have chosen to simply ignore the KNRC.
“We’ve presented the impacts of the range-wide conservation plan in mid-summer of 2013 to KDOT, The Kansas Department of Agriculture, and the wildlife and parks already knew about them,” Carlson said.
The more people know about the current and potential effects, the more they are getting involved.
One of the areas of concern involves conservation easements.
These are covenants between a current landowner and the Natural Resources Conservation Services.
According to the KNRC, a landowner is told that the easement will protect the land. But inside the agreement, which lasts for as long as the land is in private hands, there are strict limitations to the use of the land, water rights and mineral rights. There can be no fences, buildings or development of any kind, and in some cases the land can be repurposed.
An example shared by Boyd Orr, Meade County Commissioner, was that of an 85-year-old farmer in his county that accepted $454,000 (which were taxpayer’s dollars) for 1,000 acres to be a part of the conservation easement. Orr said the NRCS then spent another $1.2 million on the property to redirect streamwater that he said will flood a county road with a foot-and-a-half of water.
“When we asked who do we talk to about it, we were told that it is federal and there’s nothing we can do,” he said.
Not only can land be used differently, but a part of the covenant states that a minimum 30 percent reduction of valuation is required.
By devaluing the land, less taxes will be collected, shifting the tax burden to other property owners in the county.
Now that the land has been modified, Orr said that younger members of the family have asked, “Why are we paying taxes at all?”
Carlson said the next step is to try to get conservation easements to be completely tax free.
As Carlson and the KNRC continued to educate people on issues like these over the past year, the reaction has grown.
“First, they went through disbelief, then sobriety and then anger,” Carlson said. “They realized we have to do something.”
Many of the groups that have imposed their will on the federal government to enact environmental control over land are well-funded. Their strategy is what is known as “sue and settle” where they sue the federal government over a listing of an endangered species or other environmental issue, and rather than fight the lawsuit, the agency settles by giving the special interest group what they want, according to the KNRC.
It is through that method that the lesser prairie chicken ended up listed as a threatened species, according to the KNRC.
While those private agencies have multi-million dollar benefactors ready to sue the federal government in an effort to impose their will, the KNRC operates one a budget of less than $80,000 per year and has been funded with contributions from the affected counties. The expected cost to defend Western Kansans’ rights and protect the regional economy is about $6,000 per year per county.
And yet, some counties had difficulty convincing some members of their county commissions to support the effort financially despite the peril and potential loss of tax dollars counties already face with the reduction of oil and gas exploration and the loss of valuation with conservation easements.
“It took us months to generate an awareness that said, ‘This will impact us,’” Carlson said. “Now, not only will this impact us, it is serious, and we need to look at administrative government as a whole — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management, USFWS, the Forest Service, many of the Department of Interior agencies and the NRCS administering the conservation easement program.”
Maintaining a coalition and forcing the federal government to work with local units of government, which they are required to do, can fend off some of the devastating effects of the “blitzkrieg” to take control of land regardless of the local economic impact, but only if the coalition is willing to fund the effort to fight the battle.
While the issues may have made national news for isolated cases between federal agencies and residents in other areas, much like the prairie chicken, the issue has come home to roost in Western Kansas.
“I think that it is hitting home now,” Carlson said. “There is an awareness that administrative government is doing things outside their original mission. People are now asking questions. How can it affect me?”
For the fight to continue, and the rural way of life to be preserved, Carlson said it will take a concerted effort.
“I don’t believe in the stars aligning,” he said. “We have to take control of our own destiny, and that includes local government playing a stronger role in coordination with federal agencies. You will see that. They will come toe-to-toe squaring off. Commissioners who are informed and have courage and are interested in private property rights and their citizens will be spending some late nights studying and learning. There is concern about eroding the tax base that concern commissioners. They will be looking at that and squaring off with agencies and asking some very difficult questions.”