Sandhills Task Force reaches a landmark
by Shannon Dyer
The Sandhills Task Force (STF) completed one of its first major, long-term projects with the sale of ranchland property of the Jumbo Valley and Pullman Valley in Cherry County. The land was sold to Stan Huffman of the Carver Ranch and to Glen Coble and Sons Inc. In 1995, the burgeoning STF and the Nature Conservancy formed a partnership to purchase this land, amounting to 2,700 acres, to restore the unique fens, which are wetlands with a thick layer of peat.
Gene Mack, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Kearney, has been the driving force behind the STF since its inception in 1993. “This is what our goal was all along,” he said of the completed land sale. “We planned to restore the fens to the best practical level, set a conservation easement and sell the land back to the neighboring ranchers.
“We set out to restore the fens’ hydrology. As far back as 1930 ditches were dug to drain the Jumbo and Pullman Valleys. The soil is thick peat 21 to 22 feet deep and peat doesn’t give up water easily. It took extensive ditching to dry the meadows enough to hay and even then, it was minimal production,” he added.
By using three water control structures, they brought the water level back up to the surface, recovering as much of the wetlands as possible.
Mack’s goal, and that of the STF, was always to work with the neighboring ranchers. “From day one, as soon as we started planning restoration, we considered the impact on the neighbors and would only restore to a level that wouldn’t affect their operations.”
Money for the initial purchase came from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Nature Conservancy, because at that time, the STF wasn’t organized enough to handle the purchase. The original agreement called for the Nature Conservancy to transfer ownership of the fens to the STF. “The gist of the agreement is that the wetlands will stay as wetlands,” Mack said. “The land can’t be developed and the water structures will be maintained. We wrote the agreement in such language that it was clear it wouldn’t impede traditional ranching.”
Although the Jumbo and Pullman fen projects have been impressive and extensive, the STF is involved in a variety of projects. According to their mission statement, the STF is, “A grassroots partnership between ranchers and public agencies to protect and sustain the economic and wildlife communities of the Sandhills and Northwest Nebraska.” Eight ranchers form the base of the group of 14 and the bylaws state there will always be a majority of landowners on the committee.
The STF works with individual landowners to develop planned grazing systems, restoration of wetlands or other projects. “For instance, if a wetland or stream is downcutting due to old drainage ditches and causing a wet meadow to dry up so hay production is being lost, we work with the land owner to sub-irrigate the meadow,” said Mack.
The STF works with landowners on a strictly voluntary basis. “We try to be as creative and cooperative with ranchers as possible. We want to see ranchers keep the most money on the ground,” Mack said.
“We don’t ever exclude land from grazing because that’s part of the environmental system,” Mack said. “But we can help cost share for fences and watering systems if the rancher is willing to take a lake or wetland and manage it for wildlife.”
In the nine years since it began, the STF has exceeded Mack’s expectations. “I have really enjoyed working with the ranchers in the Sandhills. I always knew ranchers were concerned about the land,” he said.
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From June through September, John Etchart spends most of the day driving a tractor through hayfields below the mountains near Meeker in northwestern Colorado.