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When Conservation Pays

Hilary Stohs-Krause/NET News

Along the winding road to and through Grace Creek Ranch, a 25,537-acre yearling cattle ranch in central Nebraska, there are no houses in sight – no buildings, for that matter. Just acres and acres of gold and amber grass, punctuated by patches of sand and lines of barbed wire fence.

And that’s the way the owners of Gracie Creek Ranch want it to stay.  Lindsey Price, a fourth-generation rancher, her brother Aaron and their father Bob recently sold the largest conservation easement in Nebraska history, covering about 40 square miles.

“I was so excited to hear about this opportunity,” Lindsey Price said. “I thought probably everybody would want to be doing this.”

An easement is basically a sale of rights. In the Prices’ case, they sold the rights, in perpetuity, to farm or drill, and they can’t do wind development or create subdivisions. The easement will be overseen by the Nebraska Environmental Trust; funding came from private, state and federal sources.

“To me, it just gives us a chance to protect and preserve by giving up those rights,” she said.

Signing a legal contract to not develop or seek maximum production might seem counterintuitive, but for some, conservation practices have tangible economic benefits. The Prices’ easement, for example, was valued at nearly $1.8 million – and in a way, they’re essentially being paid to keep doing what they’ve always done.

Ritch Nelson, with the Nebraska office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said people choose to sell conservation easements for a variety of reasons.

“Most often, the first one that’s thought of is the financial benefit, because they’re obviously compensated, in most cases, for the value of that easement,” he said. “There’s always a lot of different motivations by different landowners based on what their goals are for their property.”

For the Prices, a main factor was knowing their land would be protected.

“You know, I said I’m third generation, I’ve been in this business a long, long time,” said Bob Price. “I think one of the biggest challenges I see in the near-term future is that a lot of people are going to say, ‘Production agriculture cannot co-exist with conservation practices.’ And it really saddens me, because I feel just the opposite. I just feel very, very strongly about taking care of the land.”

While the Prices have sought to help the environment by limiting development, a landowner in central Nebraska did the opposite.

Jeff Evans’ central Nebraska farm lies just outside the town of Broken Bow. At first glance, it looks like any other farm – but get close enough, and something just sounds different.

“If you listen, there is a noise to these things.”

Evans is talking about wind turbines, four of which jut out from the ground on his property as part of a new 14,000-acre, 50-turbine wind farm. The turbines radiate a low-pitched rumble that’s sliced at regular interval by the sharp hiss of the rotating fan blades.

Evans said he and his wife decided to participate in the wind farm in large part because of concerns about the environment.

“I think everyone is thinking about … 10, 20 years from now, where is the power going to come from?” he said. “How are we going to generate it?”

But the money doesn’t hurt, either.

“Of course,” he said, “all of the landowners have a really nice economic benefit that comes from having them on your place.”

A subsidiary of an international power company will pay the landowners a total of about $540,000 per year for the 25-year lease.

But rural conservation can come in smaller doses. While the wind turbines dominate the landscape on the Evanses’ property, a tiny orange sign reading “Corners for Wildlife Project” also is significant.

For fields watered by pivot irrigation, about seven or eight acres in every corner are out of reach of the water streams and simply don’t produce as well. Groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited pay landowners to not farm certain parts of their property, helping them instead plant native grasses to create breeding habitats.

“We just like to see the birds, the pheasants and the wildlife around us,” Evans said.

Those kinds of financial incentives are key to increasing conservation efforts on farmland and ranchland, said Terry DeGroff, an ag financial management consultant from Burwell, Neb., who helped with the Gracie Creek Ranch easement.

“I think (for) the most part, it factors in significantly,” he said. “They’re trying to stay profitable, and it’s just human nature that you think you have to take more. If there’s some forage out there, you better take it or else it’s going to waste … and many people, when they’re struggling to make a living, are going to try to harvest as much as they can.”

Still, the opportunities to capitalize on conservation may be greater than ever, according to environmentalists. And for some landowners, conservation pays.