Preserving the Panhandle in Nebraska

A land conservation group works with private landowners and other agencies to restore and preserve some of the state’s rugged western lands. 

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If you are driving through Panhandle of Nebraska and simply want to walk across a pretty stretch of country to photograph a spectacular sunset, watch out. You are mostly likely trespassing on private property the minute you step out of your car.

Nebraska is expansive, and 97 percent of its land is privately owned. That includes much of the 22,000 square miles of the western Nebraska Panhandle, scenic with its sand hills and landmark buttes.

The Platte River Basin region is particularly attractive for fishing and hunting, for hiking, for photography and other outdoor pursuits. The topography is not the unbroken farmland many of us picture when we think of Nebraska but is rolling hills, steep canyons, areas of deep pine and juniper timber, wetlands and other features not conducive to rows of corn.

The Platte River Basin Environments (PRBE) is working to create more public access to the Panhandle’s natural features. Created by a group of sportsmen in western Nebraska, PRBE and its partners have acquired more than 33,000 acres mostly in the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge areas through ownerships, easements and management or cooperative agreements. More than 29,000 of those acres have been opened up to the public for educational, scientific and recreational use. They are developing a trail system that will cover the organization’s properties. And they are establishing a partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to help private landowners restore more than 16,000 acres along the North Platte River.

Steve Frederick has lived in the western Nebraska Panhandle for 24 years. He lives in the metropolitan area of Scotts Bluff, is a fishing writer and editor, and is a member of the Scotts Bluff County Tourism Committee. He is very interested in what happens with land conservation and access, especially in his part of the state. According to Frederick, PRBE hits the right note with farmers and ranchers who are nearing retirement and are considering succession plans for their properties. “Not everyone has a family who wants to keep land heavily in agriculture. PRBE helps these landowners continue their landowner ethos in a slightly different way, assuring that their conservation practices are respected into the future,” he said.  

PRBE currently has 13 properties in wildlife habitat lands, which means thousands of acres for wild things to flourish. But that’s also thousands of acres less heavily invested in agricultural activities. Frederick addresses concerns about land use changes. “Many of the lands are in the Wildcat Hills or along the North Platte River, and they're not prime farmland. Some of them are grazed or farmed, however. Some of the PRBE lands get converted to Wildlife Management Areas, and others simply provide public easements for allowed activities, such as hunting, fishing and hiking. In most cases the previous owners wanted the lands preserved and were willing to give them up or grant the easements rather than see them spoiled by the wrong kind of development.”

By “wrong kind of development” he means in part the sort of rural acreage and ranchette property that strongly appeals to people who want to live in a beautiful, wide-open environment but don’t want to be too far from jobs and other conveniences in town. However, there are some people who do not like seeing those choices placed out of reach. “There has been some resistance to the work of PRBE. Some people fear we are catering to recreationists at the expense of people who would have liked to pay a lowball price for the properties and keep them locked up.”

A scene from the Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area.

Indeed, working lands are an important part of a healthy rural community. Taking lands out of agriculture does mean a change. But Frederick points out two important considerations. First, these lands aren’t necessarily taken out of use. There are still ranching operations, with both wildlife and livestock able to use these lands in concert, as they have for many years. Second, other land uses can also be positive for the community, Frederick said. “There is a bit of an impact when land gets taken off the tax rolls. In general, ag land is more productive economically. But that's offset by tourism,” he said, “and will be more so in the future as the public gets familiar with the opportunities.”  

For much of the public, access to land is about the land itself. For others, such as the North Platte Natural Resources District, it is really about the water. John Berge is the manager of the district, which is based in the city of Scotts Bluff and is one of 23 districts in the state. He explains that Nebraska NRDs have a long list of specific statutory purposes. These include things like soil conservation, flood control, providing water supplies for homes and businesses, managing wildlife and even solid waste disposal. Since this is complex list, Nebraska NRDs build partnerships with other agencies and organizations, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, other state and federal agencies, municipalities, counties and private organizations. PRBE is example of a private organization partnering with North Platte NRD.

“Our intersection with PRBE is twofold,” Berge said. “First, landowners across the district need to manage quantity and quality of ground water, so groups taking land back to its natural state is good thing from our perspective. It decreases consumptive use of ground water on land, therefore increasing land for habitat and river.”

Berge describes the second element as just as important, and that is the recreational opportunities PRBE is providing. This is a new element in North Platte NRD’s approach to conservation, but in Berge’s 18 months with the agency it is something he and the board of directors have embraced.

“We think the best way to protect natural resources is to promote them. We are a natural partnership to get people out onto lands to enjoy them.” He notes that building a stronger coalition with young people who are inclined to get out and explore the land is an added benefit of partnering with PRBE.

Map via the North Platte Natural Resources District
The North Platte Natural Resources District is producing an interactive map that will guide users through the regions’ terrain and other natural features. Platte River Basin Environments was the first organization to participate in the mapping project.

With exploration in mind, later this month the North Platte NRD will unveil an interactive, web-based map of PRBE properties. It will include layers of information about slope, elevation, vegetation, wildlife, trails, campsites and more. People can use the online map application on their smart phones while out exploring the lands. “PRBE was the first of our partners that stepped forward and said they’d participate in the mapping project. The mapping is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before” Berge said.

Most people will be able to see the maps too, although there is an issue of cell phone coverage in these areas. Jeff Sprock is the GIS Coordinator with the North Plate NRD. He says that connectivity for the app will not be an issue at sites like the Scotts Bluff National Monument. However, other sites have little or no cellular coverage. “We are working on a proposal with a local wireless internet service provider to create an internet hotspot at one of the parking areas to provide people with access to the app,” Sprock said.  “This, in combination to a sign that has a bitly link and a QR code which takes you to the app, should make the app accessible on phones and other devices on at least a portion of the area.” Eventually, some of the app will be available offline. “This would allow users to download a map while connected to the internet and then access the download content on an area with no internet connection,” Sprock said.

            So, educating landowners and recreationalists about the resources under their feet is positive, according to both Frederick and Berge. But what is their sense about how their communities will be different with these shifts in land ownership? Owners use their land for farming and ranching, providing habitat for wildlife to flourish, and sometimes for energy development like gas wells or wind farms. In spite of the resistance Frederick had noted, both men believe that area landowners ultimately understand how agriculture, water quality, and healthy rural communities are pieces of a pie.

“It is simple math,” Berge said. “In order to reduce use and return water to the river, you either retire acres for some period of time, or change your agricultural practices, or a combination of both.” Berge believes taking some land out of agricultural production is good for the river, good for the land, good for visitors and good for local communities. And if it weren’t for what Berge calls “common sense” approaches like these, more “draconian” measures to protect the resources in the district might come into being.

“We look favorably on private people doing good things,” Berge said. “PRBE’s work to take some of these lands out of productions and improving habitat is very good for us.”

 

Topics: Environment
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