Shane and Kristi Daniels tried life in town. After all, they grew up around ranches, knowing that the hours were long and the income sometimes short. Shane grew up working with his dad on Sandhills ranches and Kristi knew the life, too. Like so many ranch kids, they struggled to see a future in ranching. But…
“There was just something in our blood,” Shane says. “We decided we couldn’t stand the idea of living in town. All we could think about was getting back to a ranch.” They returned, working for others but wanting something more.
“Having our own place was our dream,” said Shane. “From the time that we got married, we started working for other ranches—but that’s all we were, hired labor. We tried to think of ways to get a place of our own.” Added Kristi, “Unless you have land in your family or have millions stashed away somewhere, it’s really difficult to get into ranching.”
The Nature Conservancy and the Sandhills Task Force were considering this very dilemma. “As ranchers get older and start to transition out of their operations, there are fewer and fewer young people choosing to replace them. So we were thinking about the question of what will happen to this land,” explains Jim Luchsinger, Middle Niobrara Program director for the conservancy.
The Sandhills are one of only a handful of healthy, large, intact grasslands found around the world. The dunes, prairies, plants and animals of the Sandhills are just as important and precious to the rest of the world as they are to Nebraska. Add in the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital Great Plains water resource, and you have a conservationist’s dream landscape. But the Sandhills are facing threats as an unprecedented amount of land changes hands.
The conservancy is concerned that the land ethic and stewardship practices that have protected the Sandhills may not be maintained by new owners. “We also know that landowners are being called upon to convert more acres for grain-based biofuels production,” says Mace Hack, state director of The Nature Conservancy’s Nebraska Chapter. “Some are being asked to put wind turbines on their ranches. The energy question is enormous for Nebraska.”
The conservancy could never buy enough land to fulfill its conservation hopes for the Sandhills. Even if it were possible, the stewardship and tax commitments that would accompany ownership of so many acres could never be sustained. But a simple idea began to take shape.
“Ranching has been a very good force for conservation in this state,” remarked Hack. “Ranchers need big, unbroken expanses of grass. They need healthy grasslands over many years. We are lucky in Nebraska in that we have some species of wildlife that indicate the good stewardship that we’ve had in the past. Species like the greater prairie chicken and the ornate box turtle have really disappeared from neighboring states because those prairies have declined in quality with the disappearance of ranching and other forms of land use that once preserved the landscape.”
The conservancy had long worked closely with the Sandhills Task Force, a ranchers’ group that endeavors to sustain prosperous ranching operations while supporting native plant and animal communities. In early 2005, the conservancy partnered with the task force to develop an initiative called the Beginning Rancher Program, based on a model created by the Nebraska Center for Rural Affairs.
The conservancy owned a 3,240-acre property 53 miles southwest of Valentine called the Horse Creek Fen Ranch. It was purchased in 1997 to protect 20 acres of fen, a unique wetland characterized by peat soils that’s home to many at-risk species. It was decided that this ranch would be the site of the conservancy’s first Beginning Rancher Program. According to their agreement with the conservancy, program participants would be able to lease the ranch for five years. After that, the ranchers would have the option of purchasing the ranch at its 2005 value, with the hope that the new owners could capture equity in the form of five years of appreciated land value. Rancher-members of the Sandhills Task Force agreed to mentor the family by sharing their real-world knowledge of ranch management, finances, marketing and conservation.
Once plans were in place, word of the Beginning Rancher Program spread quickly and inquiries about the opportunity were received from all over Nebraska and surrounding states. Shane and Kristi Daniels were one of five families that submitted applications and undertook a lengthy series of interviews. The applicants also had to develop financial and business plans, outlining how they intended to manage the ranch to meet both financial and conservation goals.
After they were chosen, Shane, Kristi and their daughters—Alysen, Kortney, Mikayla and Rebekah—moved to the ranch in July of 2005 and got right to work. They put in a pipeline to better water their pastures, implemented an ecologically compatible grazing system, and made improvements to the ranch house, buildings and fences. Though the ranch is small by Sandhills standards, the Daniels family has hopes and plans for future expansion.
“The Nature Conservancy is pleased to be working on a win-win program that helps beginning ranchers while protecting plants and animals. Through the partnership with the Daniels’, Horse Creek Fen will stay whole,” said Luchsinger. The ranch is a haven for 12 rare plant species, four threatened species of fish, Blanding’s turtles, trumpeter swans, white pelicans, long-billed curlews and prairie chickens.
“The Beginning Rancher Program is a small program right now, but we hope to grow it as opportunities present themselves. The program provides a real opportunity to work with Sandhills ranchers in ways that help ensure sound grassland management and economic feasibility. If we are not able to use programs like this to build our conservation work at scale, we are going to leave the next generation much impoverished,” said Hack.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The conservancy and its more than one million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. In Nebraska, the conservancy has helped conserve more than 150,000 acres since 1971. The conservancy has 4,000 members in Nebraska and offices in Omaha, Aurora, Wood River, Chadron, Valentine, Johnstown and Cozad. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at http://www.nature.org/nebraska.