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ONE PROPERTY AT A TIME-- REINVENTING CONSERVATION -- A REPORT FROM THE FIELD
The goal of Northern Prairies Land Trust is to establish partnerships with landowners to provide protection for lands that are important for agriculture, forestry, fish and wildlife habitat and open space. During its early years, Northern Prairies developed expertise using various conservation tools to help landowners protect in perpetuity the natural values of their land. This capacity resulted in conservation easements protecting thousands of acres.
Northern Prairies also sought opportunities to advance private lands conservation in other ways. Being open to innovation it is now achieving conservation on a landscape scale. Allow me to describe some of our work.
In the 1990s, the Nebraska Game & Parks agency completed a study, known as the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, which provides a fresh blueprint for action. Recognizing that priorities are needed, it identifies some 40 “Biologically Unique Landscapes” (now referred to as “BULs”) -- areas that represent the best opportunities to protect at-risk species of plants, animals and insects. However, identifying priority areas is just a first step, and the next question was how to go about protecting BUL lands, almost all of which are in private ownership.
Seizing an opportunity, Northern Prairies Land Trust formed a partnership with Nebraska Game & Parks, and implemented a plan. Simply stated, we hired skilled biologists, and located them in the geographical areas near or in BULs. The innovation that has paid off was the simplest: we gave these individuals flexibility to develop methods for working with landowners. The biologists were able to “read” the community, and determine just how to go about their work. The absolute key was gaining the trust of landowners.
The first position was established in Beatrice, where the surrounding ranches include some of the last extensive examples of native tallgrasses, an essential habitat for a long list of native species. The challenge was enormous. Less than two percent of the tallgrass rairie remains in Nebraska and South Dakota. In its historic prime, tallgrasses supported some 1,500 species of plants, insects and animals, and stored vast amounts of carbon. Kent Pfeiffer, a veteran of plant and wildlife conservation took on this daunting assignment. The tallgrass prairies in his region were threatened by invasive cedar trees, which pushed-out the grasses and made the land less valuable for cattle grazing. However, by gaining the trust of landowners -- one at a time -- Kent was able to demonstrate that if landowners eradicate the invasive plants, the prairie can be restored to health, and support an economically productive grazing enterprise. Economics and the environment go together. Healthy prairie grasses support grazing while simultaneously restoring habitat for native species. In Kent’s words, “landowners come to realize that there is more to this land than what you can take off it. Work with nature.” Kent’s work is undramatic, requiring many small projects, visits, and trust-generating involvement.
In recent years landowners have been plowing prairie grasses in order to grow corn -- an environmental catastrophe. Kent is able to report that the landowners with whom he works have been far less likely to plow their native grasses, simply because, with healthy grasses, they can make a good living grazing cattle.
Living in the community, bringing experience and knowledge to the task, and working with landowners one at a time, Kent is responsible for protecting many thousands of acres of prairie; restoring prairie on a landscape scale.
Rebekah (Bekah) Jessen operates out of a garage in Grove, Nebraska, but lives in nearby Bloomfield, her home town. She brings a Masters degree in biology to her work, and an enthusiasm which is ideal. She was originally assigned to the Verdigre-Bazile Creek BUL, but now spreads out to adjacent BULs along the Missouri River, Lower Niobrara, Keya Paha River, Elkhorn River and Willow Creek. She too relies on her ability to gain the trust of landowners, one project at a time. In fact, Bekah points out that it is often better to wait for a landowner to contact her; when they see what has been achieved on a neighbor’s land, they are inclined to pick up the phone and request advice. Through this process, Bekah has carried out more than 105 formal landowner agreements, encouraged the use of prescribed fire on more than 9,000 acres of prairie, and removal of invasive trees on more than 8,000 acres. And, this is just one part of her work. She also monitors a number of conservation easements held by Northern Prairies, and is an ever-ready partner to assist Nebraska Game & Parks staff with projects on public lands, including long-term, monitoring of at risk-species such as the Prairie Chicken, Small White Lady Slipper Orchid, and Hawk Moth. Of equal importance is Bekah’s enthusiastic role working with children on educational and outdoor activities.
Community-based, voluntary land conservation. Protecting native prairie on a landscape scale.
Kelly Corman, based in Bassett, works in north central Nebraska, particularly along the Middle Niobrara and the Keya Paha River. His work is in one of the most diverse landscapes encountered by Northern Prairies biologists. He too is faced with the loss of tallgrass prairie to invasive red cedar trees, as well as conversion to corn, and works in the community, one landowner at a time, Kelly brings to his tasks a strong background in Colorado ranch land. The Keya Paha River, which flows into Nebraska from South Dakota, provides Kelly with an opportunity to work in partnership with conservationists in South Dakota.
In recent years, Northern Prairies has expanded its conservation field work to encompass the oak woodlands along the eastern border of the state. James Baker is assigned to Ponca State Park, in the Ponca Hills BUL of northeastern Nebraska, along the Missouri River. Krista Lang and Jordan Marquis have similar duties, but in and around Indian Cave State Park, on the southern border. Just like the tallgrass prairie, the oak woodlands are under direct threat from a variety of invasive weeds, especially Garlic Mustard, which crept into the state’s woodlands in the last 5 years. Garlic mustard absolutely unhinges the entire ecosystem of the woodlands, killing the undergrowth, and defeating the natural ability of oak woodlands to reproduce.It is demanding work. According to Baker; “consistency is the key to controlling invasive species.” Working out from their bases on state parks, these woodland ecologists are engaging private owners of oak forest, getting out knowledge of garlic mustard, and encouraging private conservation projects. Their work in the oak woodlands accepts the challenge of ecological restoration and conservation on a landscape scale.
In 2013 alone, our biologists brought about active conservation work on just under 39,000 acres of native ground. They are re-inventing conservation, one property at a time.
Supporting this innovative fieldwork presents daunting practical challenges for Northern Prairies, which remains at its core an all-volunteer organization. Innovation implies risk. Northern Prairies is taking risks because the opportunity for conservation on a landscape scale is too important.
We urge our friends to join us in supporting innovation.
President’s Message -- The Challenge to Conservation
These are challenging times for conservationists, as natural lands and waters are lost in ever greater amounts. The hard statistics are available. Between 2007 and 2012, 3, 150,000 acres of natural habitat were lost in Nebraska, and more than 2,172,000 in South Dakota. The eastern Dakotas are losing wetlands at a rate of 15,000 acres a year. Most of these losses are for purposes of increasing production of field crops such as corn and soybeans. Inevitably, the decline in populations of native birds accelerates on a parallel with loss of habitat.
Conservation organizations such as Northern Prairies Land Trust grew up in reliance on the strong land ethic of private landowners. At Northern Prairies we continue to believe that the land ethic is alive, but the startling changes in the landscape force us to consider new strategies. As we proceed to develop fresh ideas, we also realize a need to enlist new volunteers who will bring new ideas to our effort. Conservationists who read this are invited to consider volunteering. Never before has there been a greater need for the innovation, experience and creativity that only committed volunteers can provide.
Despite the jarring statistics of habitat loss, Northern Prairies continues to field four biologists in Nebraska who work with private landowners to implement conservation practices. These energetic, community-based biologists are managing to protect habitat on a landscape scale, offering a counterweight to the record of land loss. We also have active easement programs along the Missouri River and its tributaries. I invite you to contact our field biologists, get to know them, and view their achievements.
As we develop fresh strategies, we will publicize them through this internet site, and solicit your response and suggestions.
PRESERVING TALLGRASS PRAIRIE BY SPONSORING PROJECTS UNDER THE NORTH AMERICAN WETLANDS CONSERVATION ACT (NAWCA).
Northern Prairies Land Trust (NPLT) partners with numerous federal, state and private conservation organizations to obtain North American Wetland Conservation Act grants to preserve native grasslands in South Dakota and borderlands. In this process, NPLT and its partners have worked with 35 landowners protecting over 10,600 acres and spent a total of $4,546,800.
These grants accelerate the perpetual protection of wetland and grassland habitats by acquiring conservation easements on private rangeland. Conservation easements have proven to be the most successful and economical way to protect grassland and wetland habitat in what we describe as the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture (PPJV). It costs twice as much to protect one acre of grassland using the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for ten years compared to protecting one acre of grassland using perpetual grassland easements. Easements are acquired in some of the highest density wetland and waterfowl breeding areas in the PPJV. This unique portion of the PPJV consists of high wetland densities and diverse bird communities. Despite ongoing conservation measures, the defining landscape of the project area continues its erosion from an extensive and biologically rich native tallgrass prairie-wetland system utilized for livestock ranching to a sterile landscape dominated by tillage agriculture. These perpetual easements are purchased from willing sellers -- dedicated ranchers and conservationists -- wanting to protect their grasslands and wetlands from destruction.
The partners are committed to working together to conserve this unique landscape by fostering a sustainable grassland economy based on family livestock ranching. These conservation easements perpetually protect the grazing lands utilized by ranchers and the vital wetland and grassland landscapes required by all prairie bird communities. The two primary facets of the project will consist of grassland easements funded by NAWCA and matching partners, and wetland easements funded by Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp proceeds and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Over 90% of all grassland’s diversity and biomass is located below ground level. Once grassland is converted to cropland, the associated wetlands are subjected to high degrees of drainage and sedimentation. Water and wind erosion causes increased sediment loads in wetlands located adjacent to cropland agriculture. Pesticides and herbicides flow into wetlands from cultivated hillsides and degrade the aquatic plant and invertebrate communities, thus, impacting the entire wetland ecosystem.
An integral part of this effort by Northern Prairies is the establishment of a position for an on-the-ground working biologist in the area. In addition to assisting with the NAWCA projects, this biologist works with private landowners throughout the tallgrass areas of eastern South Dakota to implement conservation practices, including prescribed-fire, on private, working lands. The organization has been fortunate to have in that position Mr. Jim Madsen, a well-known conservation biologist who, among other achievements, was recently the national President of the Izaak Walton League of America.
BIG SIOUX RIVER CONSERVATION PROJECT
Prairie rivers and their headwaters are the heart and sinew of the grassland ecosystem, but these waters are on hard times, suffering severe altereation leading to degraded water quality, loss of habitat for native species, elimination of riparian vegetation and loss of the natural resilience required to absorb the impacts of flooding, drought and climate change.
Northern Prairies has established a dynamic demonstration project for the protection of these streams. The central methodology is the engagement of private landowners in creating vegetated buffer strips along the riparian areas of rivers, streams and headwaters. The project focuses on the Big Sioux River, which drains about 7,280 square miles in South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, ultimately entering the Missouri and, then the Mississippi. Forming partnerships along the River Northern Prairies devised a diverse program. One element is the acquisition of conservation easements along the River. To date, 22 such easements are recorded. A second element is the employment of an on-the-ground working biologist who recruits river landowners to voluntary conservation practices consistent with the goal of a vegetated buffer.
The significance of this project is that it works. It is an efficient means of protecting rivers in the context of private land ownership and crop production.
NATURAL LEGACY PROTECTION IN THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE ECOREGION OF NEBRASKA.
Northern Prairies has stationed two full-time field biologists in southeast Nebraska whose assignment is to engage private landowners and all other stakeholders in protecting four southeast Nebraska “Biologically Unique Landscapes (BULs):” the Sandstone Prairies, Southeast Prairies, Rulo Bluffs and Indian Caves. These biologists live in the community where they build relationships through education and public outreach events, while assisting private landowners who desire to implement voluntary land and water conservation projects on their land. The emphasis is always on protecting the remaining tallgrass prairies and associated wetlands. Applying adaptive management techniques and seizing conservation opportunities as they arise, this mature program has resulted in protection of natural ecosystems on a landscape scale. This work recognizes that there are still large-scale functioning ecosystems that are worth protecting. These ecosystems include the people who make their living from the land, and their well-being is an integral part of protecting land and water and wildlife habitat.
Our working biologists have achieved a cultural change in regards to the perceived value of native prairies and the use of fire as a management tool. These are now cultural norms in some areas, drastically improving the long-term outlook for rare lands and the people who depend on them. They have used an ecological approach in developing methods. In particular they focus on enhancing diverse native plant communities using burn-driven grazing techniques and high-diversity local-ecotype prairie restorations.
NATURAL LEGACY PROTECTION WITHIN THE VERDIGRE-BAZILE CREEK WATERSHED IN NORTHEAST NEBRASKA
The Verdigre-Bazile Creek Watershed is a critical at-risk ecosystem. It encompasses one of the largest areas of remaining tallgrass prairie in the region, and is an important tributary to the Missouri River main-stem, emptying into the Missouri National Recreational River, a segment of the National Park System. Northern Prairies has stationed a full-time working biologist in the area. This person works with private landowners to undertake conservation projects on private lands, much after the model of the tallgrass project in the southeast. The goal is conservation on private lands in a manner that help assure the long-term economic prospects of the landowners.
NATURAL LEGACY PROTECTION IN THE SANDHILLS, MIXED-GRASS AND TALLGRASS ECOREGIONS – THE MIDDLE NIOBRARA INITIATIVE.
Following the model established in the southeast and in Verdigre-Bazile Creek, Northern Prairies has established a full-time working biologist for the Middle Niobrara River. Based in Bassett, the focus is on protecting tallgrass prairie on working lands, while enhancing the condition of the Niobrara River. The River is a major tributary of the Missouri and also an important regional recreation resource. It is surrounded by a valuable working lands economy based in grazing. As a result the opportunities for private lands conservation are large. As in the southeast, the presence and initiative of this biologist has led to a broad-acceptance of land management tools such as prescribed-fire, and natural ecosystems are being preserved on a landscape scale.
SERVING AS SOUTH DAKOTA’S ONLY GENERAL LAND TRUST
When Northern Prairies organized in 1999 there were no general land trusts in either South Dakota or Nebraska. Although there is now a second small land trust in Nebraska, Northern Prairies remains the only general land trust in South Dakota. This requires that we respond to inquiries from interested landowners across the State, providing the expertise needed to guide them to conservation solutions. In support of this responsibility, Northern Prairies was one of the first land trusts in the nation to be fully accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission.
In addition to the many conservation easements held as part of the Big Sioux River Project, Northern Prairies has accepted and holds important easements elsewhere. On the Missouri National Recreational River, for example, it holds easements which protect some of the remaining intact bottomlands on this heavily-developed River.
Medicine Creek Wildlife Refuge
This badger was photographed at Medicine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a property protected by a conservation easement held by Northern Prairies Land Trust.
For more photos from Medicine Creek, look at www.photosbygerhard.com
Conservation Easements maintain a legacy
Fairbury, NE - Cattle will be grazing on the prairie hills southwest of Fairbury, Nebraska, for generations to come thanks to landowners interested in preserving the land for their family. In July of this year Jim and Ann McCord granted a 1043 Acre perpetual conservation easement to Northern Prairies Land Trust that would prohibit cropping and development, yet maintain the property as a working cattle ranch.
While the McCord property retains its value as a cattle pasture under the easement, it is also a precious natural resource in its own right. Native pastures in this area represent some of the most expansive examples of tallgrass prairie remaining in North America. Consequently, the prairies, oak woodlands, and wetlands that comprise the grazing lands of Jefferson and Thayer Counties have been designated as a high priority for conservation work under the Nebraska Natural Legacy Plan. These pastures, and the many species of plants and wildlife that depend of them, owe their survival to the thoughtful stewardship of families like the McCords.
By granting the easement to Northern Prairies Land Trust, the McCords have assured the continuation of a ranching legacy, while also protecting water resources, native prairie, and wildlife habitat.
Funding has been provided in part by a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust for work on private lands in southeast Nebraska; and the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Landowner Incentive Program. These efforts assist private landowners with affecting landscape level change in southeast Nebraska for the benefit of a broad spectrum of wildlife species and their habitats.
Landowners and private contractors continue to make progress on Eastern red cedar tree removal projects in 2012. Thirteen areas, totaling 1,385 acres will be cleared to improve habitat for a number of at- risk wildlife species, including Greater Prairie Chicken, Regal Fritillary butterflies, Northern Bobwhite Quail, Loggerhead Shrike, and Bell’s Vireo, along with a variety of common species. These projects are in various stages of planning and completion. The Coordinating Wildlife Biologist continues to seek out additional landowners interested in improving their property to benefit wildlife species and improve grasslands and woodland habitats.
An on-going project involving Eastern red cedar tree removal on a mixed grass prairie (left).
A tree removal contractor completes cutting and piling on a project area in the Verdigris-Bazile BUL (right).
The Coordinating Wildlife Biologist, along with the Northeast Nebraska RC&D, Nebraska Game and Parks biologists, and Pheasants Forever biologists hosted a 5th annual Wildflower and Habitat Tour. Forty-six participants joined us for five stops across the Verdigris-Bazile, Lower Niobrara River, and Missouri River Biologically Unique Landscapes. Spectators received a behind the scenes look into how tree removal and prescribed fire practices can be used to manage and improve native grassland and woodland habitats. The effects of the widespread drought were also discussed, and it was evident that it had a dramatic impact on native habitats and cropland fields across the BULs. The tour wrapped up with a quick stop along the Missouri River to see how the 2011 flood has impacted the floodplain by creating vast sandbar habitat.
Participants of the Wildflower & Habitat Tour learn about prescribed fire and habitat management
on grasslands and oak woodlands (left). Tour participants get a hands-on look at a variety of native grasses
and wildflowers (center). Onlookers view the changes of the Missouri River following the 2011 flood (right).
The Coordinating Wildlife Biologist has been working with the University of Nebraska- Lincoln on an adaptive management study looking at tree removal in riparian forests along the lower reach of the Niobrara River. Pre-treatment vegetation data was gathered throughout the summer, and tree removal efforts are well under way in a number of the experimental plots. Data will continue to be collected during the summers of 2013 and 2014. This study will attempt to evaluate the effects of mechanically removing Eastern red cedar and other invasive woody trees and shrubs in riparian cottonwood and oak woodlands.
A cedar infested cottonwood forest along the Niobrara River. On the right, all cedars
have been removed from the understory of the same cottonwood forest, as part of a UNL research project.
Ducks Unlimited, along with its affiliated land trust, Wetlands America Trust (WAT) and Northern Prairies Land Trust teamed up to leverage additional conservation funding for South Dakota. Through funding provided for wind tower mitigation, Northern Prairies purchased a height restriction and conservation easement from WAT on 960 acres of land in McPherson County located within the 85th percentile of the identified whooping crane migration route.
Ducks Unlimited and WAT also pledged to use the funding
paid for the easement for additional conservation measures in South Dakota. Many times this funding is used as match for additional federal funds through habitat preservation programs, particularly the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which supports the Prairies Without Borders project and the Harvey Dunn Grassland Preservation Project.
Local Riparian Easement Programs Rise Again
There are two riparian easement programs operating to protect the local watersheds. The programs involve both a revival of a proven program, the Big Sioux River Conservation Easement Program, now entitled East Dakota Riparian Restoration and Protection Project, (EDRRPP) and the initiation of a new program as part of the Central Big Sioux River Watershed Project.
EDRRPP was initiated by East Dakota Water Development District (EDWDD) and is sponsored by Northern Prairies with funding provided through EDWDD and the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources 319 grant program. It will cover the same nine-county area as EDWDD in eastern SD. The Central Big Sioux River Watershed Project is sponsored by the Moody County Conservation District, and Northern Prairies is assisting with the riparian easement aspect of that project. This project will cover the lower portion of the Big Sioux River Watershed, and offers a variety of conservation practices in addition to easements.
First Central Big Sioux Riparian Easement
The first riparian easement in the Central Big Sioux River Watershed Project was granted in February on property in Minnehaha County. The Big Sioux River runs through the heavily wooded portion of this property and is subject to significant erosion problems. By agreeing to incorporate the protective buffer the landowner is taking action to help improve water quality in an area just upstream from South Dakota's largest city, Sioux Falls. The easement was purchased with funding from Sioux Falls
|Carbon Containment in the Tallgrass Prairie
John H. Davidson, President of Northern Prairies, authored an article entitled “North America’s Great Carbon Ocean”, which is published in the Winter 2010 edition of Saving Land, the quarterly publication of the Land Trust Alliance. Click here to read more.
How Important is the Tallgrass Prairie?
The Value of Green Space
Recent publications have outlined health and well-being benefits of green space and commons in urban landscapes as well as the economic paybacks of parks and open space. Case studies are contained in Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-Being through Urban Landscapes, edited by Lindsey Campbell and Anne Wiesen, published by USDA Forest Service at www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/8810 , or additional copies can be obtained from USDA Forest Service, Publications Distribution, 359 Main Rd, Delaware, OH 43015, and Fax: (740) 368-0152. The Trust for Public Lands just released Conservation: An Investment That Pays; The Economic Benefits of Parks and Open Space; available at their web site www.tpl.org .
HOW FINE-TUNED ARE YOUR BIRD IDENTIFICATION SKILLS?
Gerhard Assenmacher, a landowner in south-central Nebraska, who donated a conservation easement to Northern Prairies, has photographed a wonderful collection of birds located on his property. Click here to see how many you can identify.
For more information, please contact the nearest office listed under the “Contact Us” tab at the top