In 1991 a team of wetland and waterfowl biologists received the news they had awaited for over a year: the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) had been granted official status by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) committee. Recognition of the new Joint Venture laid the groundwork for region-wide conservation in south-central Nebraska, where each spring millions of migrating waterfowl and other birds fill the skies, fields and wetlands.
The team of biologists—who had previously worked together to write and submit the Concept Plan for the new Joint Venture—reorganized into a Technical Work Team and recruited a management board with representatives from a half-dozen conservation agencies and organizations. Furthermore, acknowledging the agricultural community’s role in habitat conservation, the Technical Work Team invited a farmer from Minden to join the management board. Under the framework proposed by NAWMP in 1986, Joint Ventures across North America, including the RWBJV, would operate as partnerships in which conservation groups, government bodies and individual landowners would pool their resources and expertise to improve and protect wetland habitat on public and private land.
Public meetings and listening sessions engaged the region’s residents in development of the Joint Venture’s 1992 Implementation Plan.
“In the early scoping meetings, it came to the forefront that landowners wanted to have a strong private lands program,” says Kenny Dinan, Nebraska coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Partners for Fish and Wildlife.
Programs that rewarded landowners for restoring habitat were a high priority; so was inclusion of landowners on the management board. John Cornely, a co-author of the Concept Plan and charter member of the technical team, says the level of landowner input was exceptional. As chief of USFWS’s Division of Migratory Bird Coordination, based in Denver, he helped create several joint ventures. “The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture did a better job of reaching out to communities,” he says. “I think that was essential.”
The Joint Venture’s first implementation plan aimed at restoring and protecting 25,000 wetland acres, plus 25,000 acres of adjacent grasslands; providing water to the wetlands and developing wetland management strategies. The plan also listed Comprehensive Strategies, beginning with: “Develop a broad base of support and cooperation among local, regional, and national interests.”
Things looked good. But not perfect. Government agency staffers, although discovering the benefits of cooperative partnership, were long accustomed to working separately and not always amicably. Friction sometimes developed. Furthermore, the partners needed a coordinator. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) Wetland Program Manager Ted LaGrange, who joined the technical team in 1993, says members realized, “if the Joint Venture was going to succeed, we needed a point person who was going be working 24/7 for the partnership.”
Most partners envisioned hiring a biologist as coordinator. John Cornely says, “If someone had asked any of us beforehand if we’d hire an engineer, we’d have said, ‘Are you nuts?’ It turned out that Steve Moran was the perfect person for the job.”
Moran, a former civil engineer for the Soil Conservation Service (now named Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS), had worked in the Rainwater Basin for six years but knew little about birds or the area’s role in bird migrations. “I guess I’d look up in the sky in the spring and think it must be like this everywhere,” he says. But he knew about agriculture in the region; he’d even helped excavate some of the irrigation pits the Joint Venture now works to refill when restoring wetlands.
And Moran knew something about communication. He told Joint Venture partners, “Before a farmer is going to listen to you about your programs, you’ve got to listen to him about his problems.” Moran’s interest in listening led him to recruit more landowners to the Joint Venture’s management board. In recent years, at least 50 percent of the management board is made up of landowners or representatives of agricultural organizations.
Current management board member and livestock producer Steve Shaw appreciates the open lines of communication. “It’s a pretty good thing for the agencies to include landowners and cattlemen in their core group of experts,” he says, “and for them to listen to our viewpoint.”
Moran’s arrival at the Joint Venture coincided with another development in Nebraska conservation. The Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET), funded by the Nebraska Lottery, was established in 1992. “I can’t overstate how important the Trust was to the growth of the Joint Venture,” says Moran. “They allowed us to do some innovative things to solve farmers’ problems while improving habitat.”
Joint Venture partners, including Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, qualified for several major federal grants for the Rainwater Basin because NET grants provided requisite nonfederal matching funds.
NET grants have helped solve problems on public lands as well. For example, NGPC needed extensive engineering assistance to restore several wetlands ravaged by siltation, berms, ditches or pits that drained away all the water. Grant funds purchased laser levels, computers and other equipment for NRCS engineers, who put their new equipment to work on NGPC wetlands.
NGPC’s Randy Stutheit, who supervised the restorations, describes one dramatic recovery at Greenwing Wildlife Management Area in Clay County. “That site had five or six pits and a berm that deflected water, so it had almost no duck use. There was quite a bit to fix, but by the following spring the vegetation community had improved, and it got thousands and thousands of duck-use days.”
Since 2001, the Joint Venture has pioneered the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to strategically plan conservation efforts. Through USFWS, Moran hired Andy Bishop as science coordinator. Bishop helped institute annual Aerial Habitat Surveys to map the location and acreage of flooded wetland habitat available to waterfowl each spring and to digitally compare yearly changes. Bishop’s office in downtown Grand Island grew into the Great Plains GIS Partnership, a team of GIS professionals who developed GIS tools for conservation organizations in Nebraska and elsewhere in the Great Plains. For the RWBJV, the team mapped a variety of features on the Rainwater Basin landscape, to strategically identify sites where restoration projects would be most beneficial.
GIS tools allowed the Joint Venture to adopt a strategic approach to habitat conservation, targeting sites that are better suited to wetland habitat than to agriculture. Instead of focusing just on “more” conservation acres, this approach aims for “better” acres, recognizing that good agriculture land should stay in production.
By 2000, as waterfowl populations began to rebound nationwide, NAWMP’s success made it a blueprint for other conservation plans, including the North American Bird Conservation Initiative, which expanded the Joint Venture’s biological and conservation planning role to all of Nebraska’s mixed-grass prairie region.
Today the partnership is also responsible for conservation of all the state’s migratory bird species. Joel Jorgensen, NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager, says, “There’s a lot of emphasis on waterfowl, but the importance of the Rainwater Basin to shorebirds and other birds is analogous. It’s as important.”
In 2008, based on Jorgensen’s documentation of shorebird use and an application from the RWBJV, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated the Rainwater Basin as a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance to shorebirds, placing it in the ranks of the world’s most famous shorebird sites.
Jorgensen, who frequently leads bird-watching tours of the Rainwater Basin, says birders here are “never disappointed,” but the region remains little known. “I think we’re just on the cusp of getting recognition,” he says.
“It’s a magical place,” says retired coordinator Steve Moran, “like the rabbit coming out of the hat every spring.”
Twenty years after the first implementation plan was signed, the RWBJV continues to track its progress, but not only by counting acres. A new implementation plan, under development, will instead focus on the native plant communities and water—the high-quality food and loafing habitat that the first technical team identified in the Concept Plan. Still, the Rainwater Basin is not just about birds or wetland acres, Moran says. It’s also about people: “People who have different value structures and different goals. There are really good people working for agencies and really good people working on the land.” They don’t always see eye to eye, but they usually try.
Andy Bishop, now Joint Venture coordinator, says the common ground has grown. “There’s an acknowledgement that wetlands and agriculture can co-exist,” he says, “and that wetlands and wildlife have value in this landscape. They’re something we can be proud of and enjoy.”