By: John Denton
DU Nebraska Manager of Conservation Programs

Famous for the Great Plains, Nebraska is a geographically and ecologically diverse state with beautiful landscapes and abundant wildlife. From the Sandhills to the Pine Ridge, Platte River and Rainwater Basin, Nebraska provides robust landscapes for wildlife habitat, agriculture and recreation. In a time when the topic of how to protect the environment permeates into everyday conversation, one solution offers an efficient way to maintain Nebraska's natural lands and resources: conservation easements.

Conservation easements are designed to permanently preserve natural, agricultural and historical resources on private land. These voluntary, incentive-based agreements allow for scenic views, wildlife habitat, water quality and historic sites to be protected in perpetuity from development, fragmentation or degradation.

Each year, Nebraska farmers, ranchers and other landowners voluntarily choose to place approximately 5,000 acres into conservation and agricultural land easements. While this number may seem significant, the conservation rate stands at 0.0001% per year of Nebraska's nearly 50,000,000 acres. In a state where 97% of the land is privately owned, landowners have an opportunity to put this land into an easement, allowing them to preserve their conservation legacy by protecting critical habitat indefinitely.

The wide-open spaces we think of when picturing Nebraska serve as natural habitat for species such as elk, bighorn sheep and prairie chickens. While most waterfowl migrate to wintering habitats farther south each fall, large numbers of mallards and Canada geese remain in Nebraska during the winter. In fact, Nebraska's Rainwater Basin and Platte River regions provide habitat to millions of waterfowl and waterbirds, including a significant portion of the Central Flyway's Northern Pintails, Sandhill Cranes and endangered Whooping Cranes. By converting these vital ecosystems into land easements, Nebraskans, sportsmen and women, environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts can rest easily knowing these precious populations are protected. The benefits of maintaining these habitats also extend beyond the protection of wildlife. When historical and cultural sites, ecosystems, cherished Nebraska scenery and farming and ranching heritage are preserved and protected in conservation easements, it benefits all Nebraskans from providing clean drinking water and preventing flood damage, to providing unobscured natural views.

While wildlife habitats and the public benefit greatly from these voluntary arrangements, it's important to acknowledge the other beneficiary: the landowner. The sale or donation of a conservation and working lands easement is an opportunity that can greatly strengthen a landowner's agricultural operation. It provides the opportunity to continue, and often improve, ranching and farming activities while allowing for expansion of their operation into hunting leases, outfitters, or other forms of ecotourism. For many landowners, habitat restoration is a priority, it's just unaffordable, but conservation easements can allow for up to 100% cost-share on restoration projects.

When a landowner pursues a conservation and agricultural land easement, that person can receive financial compensation through a payment, a tax deduction, or both. Take it from Russ Smith, a landowner and farmer from Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.

"It's comforting to know that farming and ranching will continue on this parcel of land forever, preserving the rural agricultural landscape of western Nebraska and providing exceptional habitat to the wildlife of the North Platte River Valley," Smith said.

Conservation and agricultural land easements help private landowners achieve a habitat restoration goal they'd likely be unable to afford without financial compensation.

Further South in the Rainwater Basin, Fillmore County landowner Hank McGowan, who enrolled his property in a perpetual NRCS Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership Easement, says his easement has been beneficial for all involved.

"It introduces a place where cattle, migratory birds, local wildlife, ranchers, hunters, the water management sector and the taxpayer all get to benefit from each other. It identifies the rancher as the steward, allowing him to maintain ownership, commissioning him to employ managerial practices beneficial to waterfowl and his livestock," McGowan said.

Without conservation easements, Nebraska's scenic landscapes, rivers, wildlife, prairies, forests, historic sites and productive agricultural land could be developed into environmentally perilous projects that threaten family farms and ranches, habitat and open spaces of the state. Those permanent decisions are made every day, but an easement represents the opposite decision made by a landowner. If the ecologically unique regions of Nebraska are subdivided, fragmented and developed, wildlife species are no longer guaranteed to thrive or be enjoyed by hunters, sportsman or wildlife viewers. Through easements, Nebraskans can ensure their state is preserved for generations to come.