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People, partnerships and preservation: A landscape of opportunity in the lower Platte Valley

By Dave Sands

Overlooking the lower Platte River in Saunders County, there is a high bluff cloaked in oak/hickory forest, with breathtaking long views that are rare in eastern Nebraska.

To the Pawnee, this bluff is a sacred place, and on a perfect late September morning in 2008, it was easy to see why. The warm temperature and light breeze spoke of summer, but the deep blue sky, low humidity and red sumac pointed to fall. The fine weather was well suited for this idyllic place, where 40 people had gathered to celebrate its permanent preservation.

In his 1921 book, “Prairie Smoke: A Collection of Lore of the Prairies,” ethnologist Melvin R. Gilmore wrote, “Each of the nations and tribes of Indians had certain places within its own domain which they regarded as sacred… Within the ancient domain of the Pawnee nation … there is a cycle of five such sacred places. The chief one of these five mystic places is called Pahuk…” Also known as Pahaku, it was said to be a place of rebirth, where animal spirits dwelled in a cave beneath the bluff and divulged their secrets to seekers of healing powers.

On this morning, standing at Pahaku, Pat Leading Fox, head chief of the Nashara Council of the Pawnee Nation, reaffirmed its religious significance to the Pawnee. He and three other Pawnee leaders from Oklahoma had returned to their ancestral homeland, to visit the sacred bluff and join with others in thanking Pat and Nancy Shanahan for preserving their part of it. Roughly half of the site designated on the National Register of Historic Places is located on their 257-acre farm. Through a voluntary land preservation agreement known as a conservation easement with the Nebraska Land Trust, their farm will now be protected from development in perpetuity.

The other half of Pahaku was protected in 1981, when Dr. Lou and Geri Gilbert used Nebraska’s new Conservation and Preservation Easements Act to permanently preserve their land. The law was based on recognition that private land preservation is a property right. If a landowner can develop their property in a way that alters the land and its resources forever, they can also choose the flip side of that property right: to restrict development in a way that preserves the land and its resources forever.

Recognizing that many Nebraskans love the land and that some may wish to leave a permanent legacy of conservation, the Nebraska Land Trust (NLT) was formed in 2001 specifically to work with private landowners toward this goal. In the process, agriculture, scenic landscapes, wildlife habitat, river corridors, water quality and historic sites can also be preserved, which benefits us all. It is common for a single property to have multiple conservation values, but the Shanahan’s farm had extraordinary resources in all of these categories, making it emblematic of private conservation opportunities and partnerships that are possible in the lower Platte Valley.

Preserving nature, history and farms

In the 1880s, noted conservationist George Bird Grinnell collected the story of Pahuk, as did Mari Sandoz who mentioned it in “The Buffalo Hunters.” The story was about a boy, who was brought back from the dead by animal spirits dwelling beneath the bluff, so he could teach healing to his people. This story lived because of the Pawnee elders who told it, but there are other places in the valley where stories are literally buried in the bluffs, like a 1,000-year-old village unearthed near Schramm State Park. Many other cultural sites are known along the lower Platte, but only a few have been explored, and at least two have been adversely impacted by subdivision and development.

When we lose archeological sites, we sever one kind of connection to our past. When scenic landscapes, native plant communities and wildlife habitat are lost, especially in urban areas, it damages our connection to a sense of place, the landscapes that define our memories and history. To many, the lower Platte Valley is one of these landscapes. It is also located between the state’s two largest cities, in a region projected to have 2,000,000 people by the year 2050.

From its inception, the NLT has worked with landowners along the lower Platte River who donated conservation easements on their land, along with endowments to uphold them. These donations resulted in permanent preservation of more than 1,000 acres, with over three miles of river frontage, numerous ponds and wetlands, woodlands, grasslands and part of a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In return for this protection, the Internal Revenue Service recognizes that donated easements have value in terms of dollars and public benefits, resulting in tax incentives for the landowner.

The Shanahan easement represented a new milestone for the NLT as the first purchase of a conservation easement to proactively preserve an extraordinary place. While its cultural significance is reason enough for protection, Pahaku Bluff has extraordinary ecology as well; it harbors a mature eastern oak/hickory woodland, which is very rare above the Platte’s confluence with the Elkhorn River. This unique woodland was first noted by government surveyors in the 1850s and thoroughly documented by scientists in the 1980s who discovered several eastern woodland species that had never before been found in Saunders County.

While Pahaku is a forward outpost of eastern oak/hickory forest in its march up the Platte from its confluence with the Missouri, these woodlands have occupied other steep bluffs and ravines along the way, finding refuge in a prairie state where less than 2 percent of the land is wooded. These forests attract a diverse array of songbirds to the lower Platte Valley, while the river and wetlands attract shorebirds, raptors and waterfowl.

The waters of the lower Platte sustain a rich fishery as well, with more than 50 species, including the ancient and endangered pallid sturgeon. In total, the lower Platte has 15 “Tier I At-Risk Species” inhabiting 19 different habitats; a biodiversity exceeded only by the Missouri and Middle Niobrara Rivers in Nebraska. For these reasons, the entire lower Platte is recognized as a “Biologically Unique Landscape” in the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project, a consensus blueprint of our most valuable landscapes for the preservation of native species.

The natural resources of the lower Platte are especially important to the region’s dominant species—humans. More than half of all Nebraskans drink water from the lower Platte, with three major well fields that draw water from the river to supply Omaha and Lincoln. As development of steep terrain occurs, erosion and sedimentation can adversely affect water quality, as can pollution from lawn chemicals, septic systems and other cumulative sources.

Another basic need for many people is close proximity to outdoor recreation and relaxation in a beautiful, natural place. With four state parks and other public lands downriver from Pahaku, the public has a significant investment in preservation of the valley’s rural, scenic character, which is closely tied to its popularity as a place to hunt, fish, hike, bike, ride, picnic, boat, camp, golf, bird and sightsee. These “natural amenities” provide sustainable economic development to local communities, while making the overall region a more attractive place to live, work and play.

 Much of the lower Platte Valley is still attractive to wildlife and people, because generations of agricultural stewards have cared for the land. Once again, the Shanahan farm provides an outstanding example. Over the eons, rich soils from the valley were picked up by the wind and deposited on top of the bluff, creating some of the best cropland in the state. This soil has been tilled by the Shanahan family for more than 100 years, and the conservation easement will assure that they can farm it in the future. In a developing area like the lower Platte, the preservation of agriculture and natural resources often go hand in hand.

However, the past does not always predict the future, especially when land and a growing population intersect. Conservation easements are not about stopping growth, but they are about preserving special places as growth occurs. Pahaku is one of these places, and there are others, like the Schramm Bluffs of Sarpy County.

An opportunity for landscape preservation

Below the I-80 bridge between Omaha and Lincoln, the Platte carves through limestone hills on the final leg of its journey from the Rocky Mountains to the Missouri River. The resulting landscape is steep and eroded, with fingers of oak/hickory forest following numerous deep ravines that cut into the bluffs.

At the heart of this “Bluffs Region,” 331-acre Schramm State Park attracts an especially diverse assortment of warblers and other songbirds each spring, one factor in its designation as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, the only IBA on the lower Platte. At the base of the bluffs, one might see a bald eagle roosting in a cottonwood by the river or threatened piping plovers and endangered interior least terns nesting on the sandbars offshore. Like most ecosystems, healthy habitat, wildlife and watersheds are not confined to park boundaries. Birds pay no attention to fence lines, placing the future of this landscape in private hands.

Recognizing the value of this area’s resources, Sarpy County has designated the 11,000-acre “Schramm District” as an environmentally sensitive area where conservation is desired. Zoning rules encourage “conservation developments” with protected open space, but, in the end, rules don’t protect land; people do. In the Schramm District, landowners have been the primary proponents for protection. This offers a rare opportunity to work with multiple adjacent landowners toward permanent preservation of a scenic, biologically significant, highly visible landscape, surrounding a popular public park, in the midst of our state’s most populous region.

 Supported by the Cooper Foundation and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, the NLT has been working with interested landowners for several years, including on-the-ground assessments of cultural and natural resources on 12 individual properties. In 2008, the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) awarded a $1,100,000 grant to the NLT to begin the purchase of conservation easements on some of these properties, starting with those that have the highest conservation values.

An ideal prospect was found in 90 acres owned by John and William Walz on the river adjacent to Schramm State Park, with 30 acres of mature woodlands, one half-mile of natural riverbanks and another half-mile of a tributary flowing into the Platte. The natural riverbanks are especially significant in a reach of the river where more than 50 percent of the shoreline has been stabilized by concrete and other materials, altering natural hydrological processes and habitat.

Scenic views are another significant conservation value on this property, which is highly visible from Highway 31, Fishery Road, the river and Schramm State Park, which border the property on three sides. The Aksarben Aquarium and Eastern Nebraska 4-H Center are “just across the street,” and across the river, the land can be seen from Mahoney and Platte River State Parks, Camp Kitaki, the Lied Bridge, and the Quarry Oaks golf course.

Using some of the NET grant, mitigation funds from construction of the new I-80 Platte River Bridge and a significant donation of easement value from the landowners, the NLT purchased this easement in October. Significant funding for other transaction costs was provided by the Cooper, Claire M. Hubbard, and J.A. Woollam foundations.

People, preservation and partnership

With properties like the Shanahan and Walz farms, it is easy to focus on the resources that are being protected, but conservation easements are also about people. It starts with landowners like the Walz and Shanahan families, who are committed to a legacy of permanent preservation. When asked about his commitment to an easement, Pat Shanahan explained that it was for his family: those who had farmed the land for the past 100 years, two sons that farm it in the present and grandkids who may farm in the future.

As the large group at the Shanahan dedication illustrated, this was an easement appreciated by many beyond the family as well. Over the eons, Pahaku must have changed many lives as a place of healing power. That power still exists, as anyone would attest who has walked in the forest among the stately oaks and stood on the sheer bluff 150 feet above the Platte River, awed by expansive vistas. Noted Nebraska author Roger Welsch spoke for many that morning when he said, “I have camped across from this great hill often and I have worried about it for 50 years. Friday night, I’ll sleep better knowing it is a step closer, a big step, to being protected for all.”

Partnerships are also at the heart of a conservation easement, because a landowner cannot do it alone. By its very nature, a conservation easement requires a third party, like a land trust or government agency, to uphold the agreement. In 1950, there were fewer than 50 local land trusts in America. Today, more than 1,700 exist, as people are drawn by their love of the land and a preference for nonconfrontational, apolitical approaches to conservation. Land trusts preserve resources by partnering with willing landowners who want to protect their land. There are no winners or losers in a battle because there is no battle, and at the end of the cooperative process, land is protected in perpetuity.

When the NLT works with a landowner on a conservation easement, other appropriate partners can be brought to the effort from the NLT board of directors, which is comprised of other agencies and organizations with an interest in land stewardship. Board members run the gamut from agricultural organizations to state and federal agencies, from other conservation groups to NRDs. The board’s diversity speaks to the common ground that conservation easements offer in a field where common ground seems all too rare. The board also brings a wide range of technical expertise and in-kind services that are required for easements, from ranching to biology.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the NLT also requires financial partners, since conservation easements do have costs. Normal expenses can include significant staff time, travel, baseline documentation reports, printing, legal fees, title work, appraisals, surveys and other costs. Easements must be endowed as well, to assure there will be funds for the organization to monitor and defend the easement in the future. When easements are donated, the landowner is often willing to cover these costs, which can be more than offset by tax benefits. When easements are purchased, funding partners must be found for the purchase price, normal expenses and the endowment.

The Shanahan and Walz easements provide good models for funding. The Natural Resources and Conservation Service was a key funding partner on the Shanahan Easement through their Farm and Ranch Protection Program, which can provide up to 50 percent of an easement’s value to preserve agricultural properties under threat of development. Environmental mitigation funded part of the Walz Easement, while the NET was an essential partner on both, as were the landowners who donated a significant portion of their easement’s value. The Abel, Cooper, Hubbard, Kiewit, Millard and Woollam foundations supported expenses along the way, as did many individuals.

Late last year, the NLT entered into a new partnership with the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District to expand land preservation efforts beyond Pahaku and the Schramm Bluffs to landowners downstream from Ashland on both sides of the river. Based on past experience, this will require outreach and information, identification of areas where conservation should focus, assessments of prospective properties, successful negotiations and additional funding, the most daunting task of all.

However, as the Shanahan and Walz easements show, it is not an impossible task. Many landowners are interested in easements, and funding can be obtained from private, local, state and federal sources. Like most things that involve funding, it is simply a matter of priorities.

At the Shanahan dedication on that fine September morning, several speakers pointed out that the conservation easement preserved many things: sacred ground, an ecological treasure, a productive family farm. But most of all, it preserved a rare place that links all of us together, like a thread running through time, woven into many lives. Thanks to the landowners and other partners, it will continue to weave its magic through generations to come. The same could be said about much of the lower Platte Valley. If the NLT is successful, perhaps some day it will.

 

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