LINCOLN — Despite Gov. Pete Ricketts’ opposition to conservation easements, and “no” votes from two local boards, a wildlife group recently was able to establish a permanent conservation easement along a pristine stretch of the Niobrara River in north-central Nebraska.
A year ago, Ricketts held a series of “30-by-30” rallies across the state, railing against permanent conservation easements and steps by the Biden administration to provide more incentives for such voluntary conservation steps.
But despite that, and “no” votes from the Rock County Board and the Niobrara Scenic River Council, the Audubon of Kansas recently filed its permanent easement on about 290 acres of land it owns along the Niobrara River, north of Bassett, just a few miles from the South Dakota border.
While the easement won’t come with the tax advantages normally enjoyed when a landowner gives up the right to develop land into cabins or housing, the step will allow the Audubon group to expand wetland areas along the river to benefit two elusive marsh birds, the Virginia rail and the sora.
‘A special place’
Putting the land into a permanent easement, according to Jackie Augustine, the executive director of Audubon of Kansas, enables the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to install berms and water retention barriers to create additional wetlands for the birds, which have included a pair of Sandhill cranes that nest on the property.
“It’s really a special place,” Augustine said. “It’s great to have the added help maintaining and improving that habitat.”
Augustine said Audubon of Kansas isn’t seeking a fight over the conservation easements but is just pursuing its mission to preserve and expand the wildlife-drawing characteristics of its 5,000-acre Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary.
The property, a mix of grasslands and wooded ravines that hug the south bank of the Niobrara, was gifted to the organization in 2002 by a local author, Harold Hutton, and his wife, Lucille.
Conditions of the gift included that the land would never be sold, that it would be managed for wildlife, and that it would remain on the tax rolls.
Property tax unchanged
That last stipulation — that property taxes would continue to be paid on the ranch — is what allowed the conservation easement to go into place, despite opposition by the county board and the scenic river council, according to Augustine and Rock County Attorney Avery Gurnsey.
Augustine said another difference is that the federal government held the easement through the USDA’s “Wetland Reserve Easement” program, instead of being held by a private conservation organization.
That, she said, makes the federal government “a partner” in doing Audubon’s wetland restoration work.
“We’re really excited,” she said. “We expect to see an increase in these unusual wetland birds.”
Ricketts, ag groups opposed
Conservation easements have stirred controversy with some agricultural groups because they can lower the valuation of a plot of land, thus shifting the tax load onto neighboring farms and ranches.
Landowners have used them to maintain and improve wildlife habitat. In exchange, they promise not to develop and, in some cases, not to farm the property. They can also be used to preserve farmland from urban development. In exchange, the federal government or conservation group will pay a landowner for the development rights they’ve given up.
After a conservation easement goes into effect, the valuation of the land for property tax purposes will often decline because the plot will be valued as marsh or prairie, instead of farmland, hay meadows or a cabin/housing development.
Ricketts and other critics have also opposed “permanent” conservation easements because they allow a current owner to dictate the future use of land into perpetuity, preventing future generations from using the land differently.
This spring, Ricketts joined with an anti-federal government group, the American Stewards of Liberty, and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., to rail against the Biden administration’s efforts to increase voluntary conservation of land via what was once called the “30-by-30” plan — to conserve 30% of the nation’s land by 2030.
Farmers and ranchers know best how to manage their land, Ricketts wrote in an April column, saying Nebraskans don’t need “the heavy hand” of the federal government involved in pushing a “radical” environmental agenda.
Biden administration officials, as well as local wildlife advocates, say that such criticism is misguided and inaccurate and that it is more about political posturing.
Biden plan misunderstood
The 30-by-30 plan, now called “America the Beautiful Initiative,” seeks only to increase funding for already existing conservation programs that are totally voluntary for landowners, proponents say. That includes the popular Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to set aside marginal farmland and plant native grasses for wildlife habitat and to prevent soil erosion.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation about easements and trying to discourage landowners from exercising their rights to sell or donate their easements as they choose,” said Shawn McVey, an easement restoration specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A map of conservation easements in Nebraska done through the USDA shows dozens of locations across the state. Almost 90% of them are wetland easements, McVey said, on marginal land that is usually too wet to farm.
Rock County Board member Jim Stout of Bassett said he voted against the conservation easement in large part because of a lack of information. No one from from Audubon of Kansas attended the meeting to explain the conservation easement when it came up for a vote in February, Stout said.
He said he opposes such permanent easements because they lowers the tax base, although that wasn’t the case in the Audubon of Kansas easement.
Prairie dog project drew ire
Stout said area ranchers were upset with the Audubon group when it tried to reintroduce prairie dogs to the Hutton Ranch preserve. But feelings have since cooled because the reintroduction failed, he said.
Augustine said efforts to establish a prairie dog town on the ranch have been suspended but said she’s very excited about the improvements now underway.
Last year, viewing blinds were set up so visitors could watch the spring mating dances of sharp-tailed grouse that inhabit the Hutton Ranch. And school groups from Bassett visited the ranch to learn more about wildlife.
There are plans to erect a “motus tower” to electronically track the movement of small birds through the area, Augustine said, and an online reservation system was recently set up to book the ranch lodge for overnight stays.
Birds that watchers ‘get excited about’
Virginia rails and soras are not common, Augustine said, and are “definitely birds that birdwatchers get excited about.”
“It’s unusual to find them and see them,” she said. “They love dense marsh vegetation, and they rarely fly and they randomly call.”
“It always feels kind of special when you get an opportunity to hear them,” Augustine said.
Soras got their name, she said, because their call sort of sounds like “sooor-a.” The rails have a distinctive grunt-like call.
The last survey of the birds on the Hutton Ranch estimated 13 Virginia rails and nine soras. A total of 142 bird species have been documented on the ranch, along with elk, mountain lions, wild turkeys and porcupine.
‘A beautiful place’
“It’s a beautiful place to be,” she said.
Augustine said Audubon of Kansas plans to hold an open house at the ranch this fall to show local residents more about their plans for the property.
She said she understands why people would oppose conservation easements because of the property tax implications, but she said she hopes they also understand why an easement furthers the\ mission to preserve birds and wildlife.
“I don’t have any hard feelings. I hope they don’t feel ill of us,” Augustine said.
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