State and county elected officials from South Dakota and Nebraska, as well as impacted landowners from both states, are voicing their concern over a proposed federal land acquisition.
While the comment period officially closed on Sept. 30, affected and concerned individuals hope for a comment period extension on the Land Protection Plan for the Niobrara Confluence and Ponca Bluffs Conservation Area. Government agencies propose gaining over 100,000 acres in southeastern South Dakota and northeastern Nebraska, along the Missouri River — beginning at Pickstown, S.D., and ending at Sioux City, Iowa.
Local South Dakotans fear the proposal wasn’t publicized sufficiently and that local landowners, taxpayers and other citizens are not yet aware of the proposal and its potential impacts.
On Sept. 27, Sens. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Reps. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., and Kristi Noem, R-S.D., co-signed a letter asking for a comment period extension, citing a lack of community awareness and local involvement. The required “public” meetings, they said, were not helpful enough in getting the word out.
“The meetings were poorly advertised, so communities affected by the plan have only now begun to be made aware of the content of the planned acquisitions,” they wrote in the letter. “In addition, while a number of relevant meetings have been hosted throughout impacted areas in Nebraska, there have been few such events in South Dakota.”
The delegates went on to request that the comment period remain open until Jan. 1, and that signatures on a petition be considered individual commentary, not one single comment.
In April the public was officially notified of the proposal through the Federal Register, but additional publicity is needed, said South Dakota state Sen. Dan Lederman, in order for the general public to become informed.
The federal register published the following notice in April:
“We, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service (NPS), as lead agencies, announce the availability of a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) and land protection plan (LPP) for the proposed Niobrara Confluence Conservation Area and Ponca Bluffs Conservation Area in Nebraska and South Dakota for public review and comment. In these documents, we describe alternatives, including our proposed action, for implementing conservation actions along the Missouri River and its tributaries.”
The federal register notice also includes the following points from the government agencies:
“We are proposing to work with willing landowners to conserve valuable recreational, natural, scenic, and historical resources. By combining agency resources and working together with other conservation efforts like the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Wetland Reserve Program, we hope to maintain a legacy for future generations ...
“The concept of this project is to combine agency resources to enhance conservation; enhance recreation; increase tourism; instill new money into local economies; improve quality of life through healthy air, water, and ecosystems; and increase the appreciation and awareness of the natural resources. This would be achieved by purchasing conservation easements from willing landowners or the use of fee-title acquisition. Fee-title acquisition could be used when rehabilitation is needed to improve the ecological function of the river by allowing a more natural meander, or when extensive public access is anticipated.”
While Lederman supports each individual’s ability to determine what he or she does with his or her own land, conservation easements are not a palatable thought to him, partly because they can significantly affect the value and usefulness of neighboring land.
“I’m worried about the farm economy but I’m also worried about the rights of the people, the private property rights,” he said. “When you start taking the patchwork of land out of production, it affects the landowners who have land contiguous to the easement land.”
Lederman said the area is pristine, beautiful and well-kept because of, not in spite of, the current landowners. He believes private landowners will continue to manage the beautiful waterways and its outskirts in a positive manner, and he is concerned with the manner in which the federal government currently manages property under its watch.
“Our federal government has failed to manage the public land it has under its control,” he said. “I do not believe that we should give them more authority over our private property until they can manage the land and waterways we already expect them to manage.”
Boyd County, Neb., commissioners, on Sept. 24, passed a resolution expressing concern over the proposal.
They stated that they prefer private land ownership over public, that they do not support perpetual land rights changes such as conservation easements, that they oppose any land management practices that would lower the tax base or the productivity potential of the land, and lastly that they strongly support local control over decisions that affect the property in their county.
Cedar, Knox and Dixon Counties in Nebraska have also passed policy encouraging the federal government to take “no further action.”
Noem, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., along with Johanns, Fischer and Smith wrote a follow-up letter pointing out the potential financial impact of the proposal.
“In the current era of high federal deficits, we do not believe the projected costs of this project are justified, nor do we believe the EIS (environmental impact statement) reflects there would be satisfactory benefits to U.S. taxpayers in return for the federal outlays required to fund and maintain this proposed project area,” the five said.
They quoted the expected costs — $336 million for 112,000 acres of easements and 28,000 acres of fee title acquisition.
They said almost $3 million more is expected to be spend on “startup” and “maintenance” costs.
Additionally, the letter signers expressed concern that the proposal would have “adverse economic impacts on local businesses, rural towns, agricultural land prices, and farm and ranch operations.”
“I want to thank the federal delegation for listening to us,” Lederman said.
Jay Heine, whose father Allen, a third generation farmer, raises crops and cattle and operates a feedlot along the border of the two states, near St. Helena, Neb., said his family is concerned for several reasons.
“Under their proposal, they are trying to restore the flood plain by removing the bank stabilization,” he said. “With us already being landlocked with government property, if they remove bank stabilization, we’d be in an island eventually — we’d lose land on potentially three sides instead of one side with the Missouri River.”
Another concern, he said, is an over-abundant deer population that wreaks havoc on crops, spreads disease, causes car accidents and more.
“In their plan, (they) weren’t really in favor of recreational opportunities, almost like they were discouraging them.”
Heine worries that deer hunting would be restricted on the federal land, increasing the deer problem.
Additionally, Heine said, the plan seeks to eliminate “all non-native grazers” from the area.
“That means cattle,” he pointed out. “Ultimately where this gets to be really concerning. Is that now we are surrounded on three sides with federal property and they’ve marked our property as prime property that they’d like to acquire.”
Heine said he forsees an effort be the federal government, 10 to 20 years in the future, to use eminent domain to seize his family’s property.
As land managers, the feds have shown themselves to be “very wasteful and almost damaging to the environment,” he said, not to mention the economic impact to the approximately 1,500 landowners affected.
“They didn’t seek input from these small towns and communities. They say the resulting tourism from this preserve will make up for the economic loss to the communities,” which is a “joke,” according to Heine. ❖