Listening to the Conversations, Part Three: Land and Public Policy Recommendations

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This is the final report of a three-part series on the CCNES Conversation Forum (Conversation Conference on Nebraska Environment and Sustainability, held in four conference sessions during 2011). The two previous Prairie Fire articles in December and January covered conversations on water, food, energy and materials.

By W. Cecil Steward

Land

In 1862, with the origination of the Homestead Act, who could have imagined the changes—biologically, agriculturally, developmentally, the importance to the economy and/or the social-cultural evolution—that land uses and land ownership would mean to the Nebraska landscape?

A report produced by the University of Nebraska Center for Great Plains Studies in 2009 summarizes that “Nebraska’s agricultural landscape has been affected by (domestic and) foreign policy, mechanization, economics, politics, energy policy, (climatic conditions) and availability of agricultural chemical inputs. Although the factors are large-scale and often international in scope, we are constantly reminded that individual landowners make the annual decisions that affect Nebraska’s landscape. In part, decisions have been formed based on agricultural policies and programs, some of which may not be well suited to address new forces affecting contemporary issues in U.S. agricultural economy (Dimitri et al. 2005). Individual farms are unique, but Nebraska has seen a general trend of fewer and larger farms that produce a less diverse portfolio of commodities. Nebraska mirrors other states in the Great Plains with these agricultural trends.” (Hilliar and Powell, “Long-Term Agricultural Land-Use Trends in Nebraska, 1866–2007”).

While the land resource has experienced transformative change in every domain of a sustainable present or future, i.e., the environment, the socio-cultural conditions associated with its uses, the technologies of its management, the economics of its productivity and the regulations determining its care and conservation—one opinion has been constant throughout the settlement of this land. It is the most important and valuable commodity available to the citizens of this state and often engenders the greatest controversy, whether our individual interests lie in the rural or the urban context.

Over these 150 years we collectively have learned much about the qualities and characteristics of the land, about the natural biosystems and biodiversity of the flora and fauna that inhabit the landscape, about the uses and misuses that mankind can cast upon this living resource, and more and more about the fragile nature of the variety of ecosystems that comprise the High Plains. Now we are learning that all of the state’s natural resources are interwoven and interdependent, and that even the seemingly small incremental decisions of each landowner can aggregate to crises and unsustainable consequences.

All we need do is recall the era of “The Worst Hard Time” and the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s to rediscover the potential consequence of destruction of a major resource through a combination of climate changes and mismanagement of the use of the resource, as described in Timothy Egan’s recent book:

“In 1935, Roosevelt established the Soil Conservation Service: nesters rotated crops, fallowed land and built natural barriers, irrigation ponds and holding tanks. Grass was restored in some areas, but after the rains returned and wheat prices rose in the 40’s, farmers ripped up millions of newly planted trees and started busting up sod once again. ‘The Worst Hard Time’ ends before this failure, but not before Egan, in an epilogue, gets in a quick dig against destructive federal subsidies and Texans’ depleting the Ogallala aquifer. You can’t blame him for feeling angry. The High Plains have never fully recovered.” (Web book review, 2011)

In spite of missteps and occasional bad weather, Nebraska is blessed with an abundance of productive land. Some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world allows Nebraska to produce vast amounts of corn, soybeans and other crops. Nebraska grasslands support a large cattle ranching industry. On the surface and beneath the Nebraska landscape, water quenches the thirst of Nebraskans (and many of our neighbors) and is an essential part of Nebraska agriculture. Historically, land has provided stability, income and sustenance for Nebraskans. It is a critical natural resource for Nebraskans’ future—and that of the world.

Nebraska’s total land area is 76,878 square miles (ranking it the 15th largest state in U.S). Nearly 47 percent (over 23 million acres) of Nebraska land is used for rangeland, primarily the western two-thirds of the state. This region is made up of several smaller subregions. The Sandhills encompass almost 20,000 square miles. The valleys in between these ridges contain streams, lakes and wetlands and make this region a prime cattle ranching area. The intensively cultivated Loess Plains or “Rainwater Basin” region covers roughly 8,000 square miles of south-central Nebraska. Roughly 12,000 square miles of the High Plains lie west of the Sandhills. Over 39 percent (19 million acres) is used for cropland, primarily in the eastern third of the state, where expanded development of cities and towns is steadily encroaching on the state’s most fertile farmland. (Center for Advanced Land Management, 2007 statistics)

CCNES participants quickly concluded that all citizens, be they urban residents or rural residents, need to understand what is happening that affects the land resource in both rural farming and ranching areas, as well as why and how they may be affected by urban land-use practices, developments and markets. Participants also quickly expressed an awareness of how land-use practices and consideration of natural land “biological boundaries” and watersheds for the organization of guiding policies and practices, initiated via interjurisdictional collaboration, likely hold the best chance for sustaining Nebraska’s land resource well into the future. There was a general recognition that our historical assumptions of “technological fixes” and “rugged independence” may need to be reexamined in our current era of resource conservation for the benefit of the individual in conjunction with concern for Nebraska neighbors. Nebraskans need to find innovative and fair ways to sustain all the things that make our state unique, including productive agriculture and the conservation of natural resources.

Everyone recognized the challenge of participating with others in creating a cultural shift needed to move toward long-term sustainable thinking in lieu of the short-term horizons we typically honor. Some challenged current-day Nebraskans to “become better ancestors.”

Themes

Themes that emerged from participant conversations varied in conferences across the state. For example, participants in the eastern part of the state tended to explore issues related to optimal use of urban space, controlling urban sprawl and revitalizing deteriorating areas in towns and cities. Conferences in the central and western regions tended to explore the economics of sustainable agriculture and questions about land conservation.

Threats to Nebraska Land Resources

Participants identified current practices and policies they considered to be potential threats to Nebraska land resources in the future. Concerns included

  • In the eastern part of the state, we cement over fertile, productive land for homes and new shopping centers.
  • Some rural cities and metro-acreage residents face health concerns given concentrations of septic tanks near wells.
  • Overuse of pesticides and herbicides in current agricultural practices may lead to groundwater contamination.
  • The unknown negative impacts of the proposed Keystone Oil Pipeline to the Sandhills and Ogallala Aquifer was an issue during the span of Conversation Conferences. (Nebraskans have rallied since to initiate rerouting the pipeline away from high-risk areas, but real concerns for technology failures and continuing dependence on fossil fuels remain.)
  • Long-term irrigation farming practices and mono-cropping take a toll on the soil, thereby reducing the land’s ability to sustain productive agriculture in the long term.
  • Nebraska forests are being dismantled as corn prices increase. Do we value our groves, forests and/or natural habitats for wildlife?
  • Overvaluation of land that prevents younger start up farmers from earning a living on the land; practices of property-tax valuations that rise in an area because of the sale of a single parcel.

Land Use

Participants were intent on understanding the rural point of view regarding land use; there were many present at the conferences that helped to inform conversationalists of critical agricultural perspectives. For example, from the point of view of some farmer/ranchers: “everything sustainable comes down to the marginal dollar.” Many were interested in learning more about sustainable land use and best management practices. There was common agreement among those who wanted to sustain the “Nebraska agricultural ideals” to pass on to the next generation.

Diversity of Land Use

Diverse use of land was viewed positively, which included harvesting resources (particularly wood and grass), though there were lively debates about voluntary versus mandated practices, as well as questions about what might be ahead. For example:

  • Will we take grazing land out of production and replace it with crops? Will we increase dry-land farming?
  • Will we farm marginal land in an effort to produce more food? This was attempted in the Sandhills to no avail. When the price of corn, wheat, beans, etc., goes up, does it make sense to plow land that may not be optimal for farming in an effort to increase income (short-term, long-term debate).
  • We are ever decreasing access to land by the public. This access includes trails, camping and recreation (hunting/fishing). These are important considerations for wellness, for tourism and for recruiting younger generations to stay in the state.

Participants agreed in principle: multipurpose landscapes and uses influence resiliency, are more attractive, and they give the maximum benefit in an area, both ecologically and agriculturally.

Land Use: Cities and Towns

Participants identified numerous issues and responses to optimal land use in urban areas. Among them were concerns about urban sprawl and the dilemma of land values increasing with commercial and residential development on the outskirts of cities and town, leading landowners to sell prime farmland. People explored other options, including redeveloping blighted areas, planning for walkable neighborhoods with nearby schools and commercial conveniences, efficient transportation systems that minimized the need for new road systems, more green spaces and areas for community gardens.

Examples were noted of urban areas (Detroit, Denver, Portland) that are systematically reclaiming deteriorating neighborhoods and central districts and turning them into green spaces, food crops or redeveloping them for newer housing.

Land Conservation

Many participants expressed concern for deteriorating ecosystems that depend on healthy watersheds. For example, some suggested that flood-plain protection could be achieved through public sector land purchases, thereby preserving natural habitat and avoiding flood devastation of developments in these areas. Others noted that the health of the Nebraska wetlands attracts migrating waterfowl, which also attracts tourist dollars for local communities (an estimated $12 million, annually). Expanded recreational infrastructure in natural areas may attract young families committed to caring for the land, working the soil and preserving the quality of life in Nebraska. Finding good ways to protect native prairies and grassland, as well as wildlife and endangered species, became a hot topic of conversation.

Commodity Industry Agriculture

Industry agricultural practices have changed dramatically over the years with new technologies, better equipment, irrigation systems, wind breaks, tax policies, etc., but, as someone asked and others pondered, “Is this approach to almost mono-agriculture right for the land?”

Vegetable/Fruit/Food-to-Local-Markets Agriculture

Participants valued the local production of food. While the benefits are many—healthy food, community gardens, revitalizing blighted areas, reduced transportation costs—the question remained: is produce agriculture economically viable? Interesting debates ensued, some challenging entrenched assumptions about what constitutes “Nebraska agriculture.”

Land Ownership

The topic of land ownership was a conversation focus in central and western regions. Some wanted to know, “Who’s buying up Nebraska land, what is it going to be used for, and how will it be sustained?”

Two major concerns about land ownership included the loss of family farms and the need to build the next generation of farmers/ranchers. There were more questions than answers about how to deal with these issues:

  • How do we attract youth back to take over ranches and farms? How do we pass family farms/ranches to the next generation? Can we sell them on the lifestyle?
  • The economics of starting a farm/ranch operation from scratch simply doesn’t work anymore. It is too capital intensive. This makes it difficult/impossible to sustain a family, which leads to unsustainable communities and finally an unsustainable region; many empty-nester landowners are counting on the sale value of their farms for their retirement pension, regardless of the community impact.
  • Seventy-five percent of farmers in the Scottsbluff valley have off-farm income. Thus, farming/ranching has a symbiotic relationship with local communities.
  • Increased absentee ownership of land in the panhandle by owners that reside outside of the region. The trend has changed from individuals buying 200 acres to investors buying 5,000 acres. What are their intentions/practices for the land? Income? Recreation? Sustainable uses?

Recommended Policies and Practices

Nebraskans who attended the CCNES were action-minded thinkers. They were there to learn more about issues related to conserving Nebraska’s rich resources—energy, materials, food, water and land—in conversations with each other. Participants brought diverse perspectives, backgrounds and interests: they ranged from local leaders, young parents, teachers, farmers, university professors and researchers and business owners to representatives from state and local agencies that serve Nebraska citizens. They didn’t always agree, but each had something to offer to expand understanding of the whole. By mid-afternoon during each of the four conferences, participants were asking, “I learned a lot I hadn’t known before, but what are we, our neighbors and our policy makers, going to DO to begin to shift the way we think and act in order to conserve Nebraska’s rich and diverse resources? In order to sustain Nebraska, the good life, that we have known in our lifetimes?”

The CCNES was conceived from a sense of not only danger but unrealized opportunities for the development of these five resources. In four of the five resources—land, water, energy and food—the quantity/volume of the natural bounty seems almost limitless, but we know they are finite, even if there are more present possibilities for development. In the materials area the challenge is using less, using more for longer periods of time and wasting less of the resources required for the making of materials.

There is no other state in the Union that has more natural resources, especially relevant to the future well being of its citizens, than does Nebraska. The ultimate question for choices of actions and policies for this future is, “How can we conserve, sustain and renew these five resources, while balancing developmental decisions to assure our own sustainable future?”

Below are examples of six “big” action and policy areas to which Nebraskans should commit themselves, and to which policy makers should give serious consideration:

Conservation/Development/Waste Reduction (Constitutional Provisions)

The Constitution of the State of Nebraska is void of any language of commitment for conservation of the state’s natural resources. Several states have articles with conservation language. For instance the State of Virginia Constitution explicitly says:

“Article XI
“Conservation
“Section 1. Natural resources and historical sites of the Commonwealth.
“To the end that the people have clean air, pure water, and the use and enjoyment for recreation of adequate public lands, waters, and other natural resources, it shall be the policy of the Commonwealth to conserve, develop, and utilize its natural resources, its public lands, and its historical sites and buildings. Further, it shall be the Commonwealth’s policy to protect its atmosphere, lands, and waters from pollution, impairment, or destruction, for the benefit, enjoyment, and general welfare of the people of the Commonwealth.” (with further sections on conservation and development of natural resources, historical sites and specific resources.”

Similar language should be drafted and put before a vote of the public. The lead agency in this action should be the Natural Resources Committee of the State Legislature.

Information/Research (Statewide Resources GIS System)

All political jurisdictions, planners and decision leaders should have access to a complete and technologically sophisticated system of geographical information about the common and unique regional characteristics of the state’s natural resources.

The lead agency on this action should be the 23 Natural Resource Districts (NRD), in collaboration with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the University of Nebraska School of Natural Resources.

Investments/Finance (Conservation Increment Financing)

In our historical and continuing compelling context of “all decisions have a distinct economic impact,” conservation will never be achieved unless and until we develop a systematic means of giving economic value to the use and development of our natural resources. It is feasible to imagine a system of “conservation-increment financing” that would operate in the public domain similar to tax-increment financing, whereby the expense of conservation protections and certain developments would be offset in the beginning of projects, dependent upon future increased value of the conserved resource. A prime example of one resource would be energy, where investments in conservation and efficiencies are immediately required to save later massive expenses for new power generation facilities to meet ever-growing demands.

The lead agency for this action should be the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, in close coordination with the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, the Nebraska Bankers Association and the Nebraska League of Municipalities.

Education

Participants invariably identified the need for more public education for citizens of all ages. In some cases, participants committed themselves to help spread the word about reducing material consumption, saving energy, protecting the land and water, supporting the local food economy. Centers of educational initiatives and materials must be developed with networks into all levels of the educational and informational community. A consortium for programming should be created among institutions of higher education, community colleges and public and private primary and secondary schools.

Leadership

Every public official, state and local community decision leader and corporate and private business leader should have access to regular and ongoing leadership tools and knowledge concerning the conservation and development of the state’s natural resources. The Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities, in partnership with the Sustainability Leadership Institute, has provided one viable model in its 2009–2010 Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshops series.

The lead agency for this action should the State System of Community Colleges, in close coordination with the League of Municipalities and volunteer participating Chambers of Commerce.

Communications 

The success and effectiveness of the above five recommendations will depend upon new forms, structure and uses of the available public and private media for communications. Our history, for the most part, has been to organize communications about both current events and historical data around “sound bites” and single-issue reports. As the Conservation Conferences have demonstrated, repeatedly, the issues of the conservation of our limited natural resources are complex and interrelated with all human activity. Each resource is interdependent with every other resource, and the sustainability of human existence depends upon the knowledge of the interdependencies and the consequences of the interactions. We should be actively studying communications for complexity and holistic systems within the domains of sustainability.

Our institutions of higher education in the state should form a cooperative task force for the modeling of New Communications for the Conservation of Nebraska’s Natural Resources.

In addition to the above, there are numerous ideas and suggestions in each of the resource areas that surfaced and are worthy of either new actions, new attitudes or local or state incremental policies. These can be found at www.nslw.org/conversations_finalreport.html. The Conversations will continue. Your opinions, recommendations and personal engagements are welcome in the Web format.

 

The CCNES conferences were sponsored by the Nebraska Environmental Trust Fund, the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority, the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, the Lincoln Electric System and the Nebraska Humanities Council. Assistance with the writing of this Prairie Fire report has been generously provided by Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities staff Katie Torpy and Diane Wanek; conference facilitators Mary Ferdig and Jay Leighter and resource specialist Nathan Morgan.

 

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