Wildlife group obtains conservation easement despite opposition from Ricketts, County, Niobrara Council
LINCOLN – Despite Governor Pete Ricketts’ opposition to conservation easements and “no” votes from two local councils, a wildlife group was recently 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, protesting permanent conservation easements and moves by the Biden administration to provide more incentives for such measures. voluntary conservation.
But despite this, and “no” votes from the Rock County Board and the Niobrara Scenic River Council, the Audubon of Kansas recently filed its permanent easement on approximately 290 acres of land it owns along the Niobrara River in north of Bassett, a few miles from the South Dakota border.
Although the easement does not come with the tax benefits normally enjoyed by a landowner who relinquishes the right to develop land into cottages or housing, this measure will allow the Audubon Group to expand wetlands along the river. for the benefit of two elusive marsh birds, the Virginia rail and the sora.
‘A special place’
Put the land in permanent servitude, according to Jackie Augustine, executive director of Audubon Kansas, allows the US Fish and Wildlife Service to install berms and water retention barriers to create additional wetlands for birds, including a pair of nesting sandhill cranes on the property.
“It really is a special place,” Augustine said. “It’s great to have the extra help to maintain and improve this habitat.”
Augustine said Audubon of Kansas was not looking to fight for conservation easements, but was simply continuing his mission to preserve and expand the wildlife drawing features of his 5,000-acre Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary.
The property, a mix of grasslands and wooded ravines that run along the south bank of the Niobrara, was donated to the organization in 2002 by local author, Harold Hutton, and his wife, Lucille.
The terms of the donation were that the land would never be sold, would be managed for wildlife, and would remain on the tax rolls.
Property tax unchanged
This last stipulation – that property taxes would continue to be paid on the ranch – is what allowed the conservation easement to be put in place, despite opposition from the County Council and the Scenic River Board, 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.
This, she says, makes the federal government a “partner” in Audubon wetland restoration work.
“We’re really excited,” she said. “We expect to see an increase in these unusual wetland birds.
Ricketts, opposing farm groups
Conservation easements have caused controversy with some agricultural groups because they can reduce the value of a parcel of land, thereby shifting the tax burden onto neighboring farms and ranches.
Landowners have used them to maintain and improve wildlife habitat. In exchange, they agree not to develop and, in some cases, not to exploit the property. They can also be used to preserve agricultural land from urban development. In exchange, the federal government or a conservation group will pay a landowner for the development rights they have surrendered.
After a conservation easement comes into effect, the land’s assessment for property tax purposes will often decrease because the land will be assessed as marsh or grassland, 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 future land use in perpetuity, preventing future generations from using the land differently.
This spring, Ricketts joined an anti-federal government group, the American Stewards of Liberty, and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., in decrying the Biden administration’s efforts to increase voluntary retention 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 better 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 promoting a “radical” environmental agenda. “.
Biden administration officials, as well as local wildlife advocates, say such criticism is misguided and inaccurate and more of a political posturing.
The misunderstood Biden plan
The 30 by 30 plan, now called “America the Beautiful Initiative,” is only meant to increase funding for already existing conservation programs that are completely voluntary for landowners, proponents say. This 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 have been a lot of misinformation about easements and trying to discourage landowners from exercising their rights to sell or give away their easements as they wish,” said Shawn McVey, a Easement restoration specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
A map of conservation easements in Nebraska made by the USDA shows dozens of locations across the state. Nearly 90% of them are wetland easements, McVey said, on marginal lands that are typically too wet to farm.
Rock County Councilman Jim Stout of Bassett said he voted against the conservation easement largely because of a lack of information. No one from Kansas Audubon attended the meeting to explain the conservation easement during the vote in February, Stout said.
He said he opposes these permanent easements because they reduce the tax base, although that was not the case in the Kansas Audubon easement.
The prairie dog project sparked anger
Stout said area ranchers were upset with the Audubon group when it tried to reintroduce prairie dogs to the Hutton Ranch reservation. 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 put on hold, but said she’s very excited about the improvements underway.
Last year, blinds were installed so visitors could watch the spring courtship dances of the sharp-tailed grouse that inhabit the Hutton Ranch. And school groups from Bassett visited the ranch to learn about the wildlife.
There are plans to erect a “motus tower” to electronically track the movement of small birds in the area, Augustine said, and an online reservation system was recently set up to reserve the ranch lodge for overnight stays.
Birds that ‘excite’ observers
Virginia rails and soras are not common, Augustine said, and are “certainly birds that excite birdwatchers.”
“It’s unusual to find them and see them,” she said. “They love dense swamp vegetation, rarely fly and call randomly.
“It’s always kind of special when you get to hear them,” Augustine said.
Soras got their name, she said, because their call somehow sounds like “sooor-a.” The rails have a distinctive growl-like screech.
Hutton Ranch’s latest bird survey estimated 13 Virginia rails and nine soras. A total of 142 species of birds have been recorded on the ranch, along with elk, mountain lions, wild turkeys and porcupines.
‘A nice place’
“It’s a nice place to live,” she says.
Augustine said Audubon of Kansas plans to hold an open house at the ranch this fall to tell local residents more about their plans for the property.
She said she understands why people would object to conservation easements because of the property tax implications, but she said she hopes they also understand why an easement furthers the bird conservation mission. and wildlife.
“I have no grudges. I hope they don’t feel bad about us,” Augustine said.