Case Studies

Nebraska Land Trust – Crafting Flexible Easements to Respond to Change

Value of the land and habitat

Since 2001, the Nebraska Land Trust has been dedicated to the mission of protecting agricultural, historical, and natural resources throughout the state through education, partnerships, and permanent conservation. From hardwood forests on the eastern bluffs to pine covered buttes in the Panhandle, Nebraska is a land of contrast and beauty. In 2010 the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s ecological assessment listed 83 natural community types, including upland forests, mixed-grass prairies, and various wetland systems.  Average temperatures are fairly uniform across the state, with hot summers and generally cold winters. Rainfall can vary significantly between the west and southeast regions.

While Nebraska doesn’t have mountains, the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge come close. With ponderosa pines, towering buttes, deep canyons, clear streams, and expansive grasslands, the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge are two of the most popular and scenic destinations in Nebraska. They are also two of the state’s 40 Biologically Unique Landscapes which are designated through the State Wildlife Action Plan as landscapes where conservation should focus.  The Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills are especially diverse, with western and eastern wildlife on the edge of its range.

In northwestern Nebraska, the scenic Pine Ridge region is a rugged landscape of buttes, knife-edged ridges, canyons and grasslands. The area is also rich in history and western wildlife such as elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, and songbirds. These attributes make the Pine Ridge a magnet for tourism with the state’s first state park (Chadron SP), largest state park (Fort Robinson SP), the state’s only national forest and its only national grassland. However, even with more public land than elsewhere in the state, the Pine Ridge is still mostly in private hands. Through active range management generations of ranchers have preserved a landscape that would still be recognized by the Native Americans who preceded them.

Conservation concerns

Traditional land ownership and use in the Pine Ridge is changing, from agriculture to recreation and development. Ranching has largely preserved the integrity of grassland ecosystems by preventing fragmentation that maintains wide-open spaces. Unfortunately, ranches are increasingly being sold for recreational use, often to out-of-state buyers. When recreation replaces ranching, there can be immediate impacts to the land and community. For example, if grazing is eliminated completely, fuel loading of grasses, scrub-shrub, and “dog hair” stands of forest can turn what once was a healthy prairie system into a tinderbox.

In addition to changing land ownership, changing climate conditions and resource use trends are leading to increasing impacts from drought and wildfire. In 2012 a horrible drought caused the most intense and numerous forest fires ever seen in Nebraska; two conservation properties held by the land trust that were located 200 miles apart had ponderosa pine forest that was decimated. Before that the land trust didn’t think about things like fire breaks.

NBFireDanger

Since then, NLT has implemented changes in the way easements are constructed in order to reduce risks of future fires, droughts, and the spread of invasive species. These changes include allowing for fuel load reduction through selective tree thinning and grazing activities and control of invasive species. Additionally, implementation of a land management plan is a consideration for conservation prioritization in NLT’s “Property Scoring Worksheet”. The worksheet specifies that “land management plans are adaptive, written documents that may change according to conditions” and may include grazing, farming, fuels management, sustainable forestry, wildlife habitat, and water resources. By allowing for flexible land management and considering comprehensive planning when selecting conservation properties, NLT is taking an adaptive approach to long-term resource stewardship.

Current protection status and management plan

In addition to encouraging sustainable agriculture and forestry practices, the Nebraska Land Trust supports community land management education. The land trust’s resources page refers landowners to local and federal resources as well as experts on a variety of topics such as prescribed fire, invasive species control, drought management, and rangeland preservation. For interested landowners, the land trust also supports the pursuit of grant opportunities and cost-share programs that enable these efforts.

While the Nebraska Land Trust’s mission entails state-wide conservation, it is targeting conservation easement acquisition in especially iconic and ecological unique regions of Nebraska. In 2014 NLT launched the “Pines and Buttes Preservation Project,” supported by a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, which receives 44.5% of the state’s lottery proceeds that are disbursed through highly competitive grants. Through designation of the Pine Ridge Advisory Committee, the NLT Board of Directors recognizes the Pine Ridge as a part of the Pines and Buttes Conservation Focus Area (CFA) which may also include the Wildcat Hills. The CFA designation gives projects in that landscape a high priority, especially when the NLT pursues limited state and/or federal funding needed to purchase an easement. Community input is essential to the success of a CFA. To assure selection of quality, locally supported easements, advisory committees in both landscapes are helping to guide the selection of priority projects through transparent, locally relevant conservation criteria.

Process of achieving protection and resilience to climate change

Climate change as well as a history of fire suppression have led to increased risks of wildfires in this region. While climate change is not explicitly addressed in land trust literature or easement language, its undeniable impacts are being mitigated through the development of flexible conservation easement language that considers management interventions to reduce the risks of fire, invasive species, and drought. Climate impact responsive recommendations include tailoring conservation easements to allow for emergency fire-control procedures such as fire-lines as well as encouraging fuel-load reduction through grazing, forest thinning and invasive species control.

Additionally, NLT is working to prioritize conservation efforts. The collaboratively developed “Property Scoring Worksheet for Conservation Easements in the Pine Ridge” considers numerous factors that contribute to landscape resiliency. These include property size, with larger properties receiving higher scores, existing sustainable agricultural and/or forestry operations, the implementation of land management plans that include grazing, fuel management, and water resources, as well as resource and community sustainability factors; view the scoring worksheet here. NLT advocates and implements landscape conservation planning using a collaborative, community-based approach. The property scoring worksheet was developed by local stakeholders, and when potential conservation properties become available they are assessed by staff from the land trust and members of the advisory committee who also provide ongoing support and evaluation.

Plans for the future

The Pines and Buttes Preservation Project is a three-year funded initiative that aims to purchase multiple conservation easements in the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills regions. In October 2015, the NLT assessed four properties in the Pine ridge totaling 4,400 acres.  The highest scoring property was one where active forest thinning and grazing had shielded their land from the devastating 2012 wildfires.  Whereas properties around them had burned, this property is a living example that properly managed forests can be more resilient when wildfire strikes and in the aftermath, they can act as “seed islands” that will aid in the regeneration of the pine forests over time.  In addition to allowing for such management in the conservation easement, the NLT will go one step further and help to seek cost-shares for landowners interested in proactive forest management.  The pace of conservation will depend on funding, but through the NLT’s scoring process, “seed islands” that constitute the best managed, most fire resistant forests will become priorities for protection.

Engaging Stakeholders

Stakeholders and local citizens have been essential to the development and deployment of the Pines and Buttes Preservation Project as well as the overall growth of conservation initiatives in Nebraska. By including the community in the development of easement prioritization planning and selection through the advisory process, NLT has brought diverse stakeholders together in landscape conservation planning and built broad support of these efforts.  In a “private lands” state like Nebraska, where 97% of the land is privately owned, “Community Conservation” is critical to success because land conservation is only sustainable if it is supported by those who live there.

Key Partners

Partners in conservation planning and acquisition include:

Lessons learned

    • Flexibility is key. As climate conditions present new management threats, it is important that conservation easements allow for the flexibility to mitigate and adapt to these impacts. This can include allowing for emergency management, encouraging practices that reduce fuel loading and implement water efficient resource use to reduce drought stressors. Similarly, incentivizing renewable energy generation both reduces reliance on fossil fuels as well as the need for expansive energy transmission grid construction which may fragment landscapes and enable the spread of invasive species. By tailoring easement language to address changing conditions, the Nebraska Land Trust is both adapting to and mitigating impacts of climate change.
    • Community Conservation is critical.  No one knows a landscape like the people who live and work there.  Because of this, the NLT takes the time to let local residents play a key role in conservation planning and assessment.  Rather than telling people “This is what we want to protect,” we ask, “What makes your region special?  What would you like to preserve for your great grandchildren? What are your chief land management challenges?  What are your priorities for conservation?”