It seems to us on the edge of “God’s Cow Country” that Sandhills residents (and western Nebraskans in general) are environmentalists in the most practical sense.
The past 150 years have taught our region, especially its ranchers, that our vast open areas beyond our river valleys can’t simply be plowed up or disturbed at will.
Hard experience capped by the 1930s “Dust Bowl” laid bare the fragility of the sand dunes’ thin layers of grassland that have sustained untold millions of cattle and bison.
Thus Sandhills ranchers earnestly conserve one of the world’s prime grazing regions, preserving its meat-producing potential and their own way of life but also resisting developments that the land can’t handle.
That’s why you hear our neighbors fighting calls to spread “green” wind farms across the Sandhills — for the equally “green” reason that heavy wind turbines will leave lasting, ecologically damaging scars there.
We suggest the time has come for more Sandhills landowners to seriously consider a private, entirely voluntary legal tool for long-term protection of their region.
We’re talking about conservation easements.
They’ve been around for four decades but are used on less than 1% of Nebraska properties, says Dave Sands, executive director of the Nebraska Land Trust.
They’re permanent conditions that ranchers (and farmers, for that matter) can attach to their land saying what can and cannot be done with and on it.
If they sell, and definitely when they die, future owners must abide by the easements’ limitations.
But the land stays on the property tax rolls.
And if the easement is properly designed, it stays in agricultural production in perpetuity.
Nonprofits like the land trust and (to a lesser extent) The Nature Conservancy officially hold the easements. The Conservancy also sometimes buys ranchland and then resells it to new ranchers, retaining a conservation easement when it does so, Nebraska state Executive Director Mace Hack says.
By holding such easements, such nonprofits can help defend the land against efforts to put it to uses its easement forbids.
But that’s where their role ends.
The land still belongs to the landowner, who can keep raising cattle or allow hunting, ecotourism or whatever else he or she writes into the conservation easement.
It’s entirely up to him or her whether to pursue one or just leave his or her land open for wind turbines, rural subdivisions, etc.
Some will. That’s their right. But might not conservation easements help limit future indiscriminate installation of wind turbines if owners of productive but ecologically fragile ranches take their spreads off the board?
They also could add legal documentation useful for those wary of President Joe Biden’s new “30 by 30” initiative.
We’ve heard fears of possible federal “land grabs” after Biden’s Jan. 27 executive order calling for recommendations of how to conserve at least 30% of U.S. land and waters by 2030.
But the order’s Section 216 says nothing about land grabs. It does call for “mechanisms to measure progress” toward the 30% goal.
Experts, by the way, estimate the nation is at 12% already. Remember that figure.
Biden’s order calls for working with state and local governments but also “agricultural and forest landowners, fishermen and other key stakeholders.” That includes ranchers.
According to The Nature Conservancy, the Sandhills’ 12.54 million acres of grasslands hold in place some 376.3 million tons of carbon — about 35 tons for every acre.
In other words, “God’s Cow Country” is also one of the world’s most vital “carbon sinks” — lovingly preserved by Nebraska’s conservation-minded ranchers.
The Sandhills already may be counted among the 12% of U.S. land already conserved. If not, groups like the Conservancy and the Nebraska Land Trust can help ensure it’s counted.
They already believe in helping ranchers and farmers stay on their land and preserve it. Conservation easements are one of their tools, though hardly the only one.
We think greater voluntary adoption of conservation easements — again, tailored to preserve local property tax rolls and keep ranchers and cattle in the Sandhills — could help ease a multitude of worries about the future of Nebraska’s widest-open spaces.
If you’re intrigued, visit the websites for the Nebraska Land Trust (nelandtrust.org) or the Conservancy’s Nebraska chapter (nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/nebraska).
They’ll tell you how they can help you set up a conservation easement. The rest is up to you.