Largest conservation easement completed in NE | TSLN.com

Largest conservation easement completed in NE

Loretta Sorensen
for Tri-State Livestock News

Bob, Lindsey, and Aaron Price recently completed the largest conservation easement in Nebraska, endeavoring to preserve the current state of all the vast grasslands under their care. Courtesy photo Price family

His great-grandchildren and their descendants may never have the opportunity to know Bob Price personally. But they'll remember him for the consideration he's already giving them each time he surveys his family's 25,537-acre Gracie Creek Ranch in the western Nebraska's Sandhills.

Bob and his children, Aaron and Lindsey (Price) Smith, recently completed the largest conservation easement in Nebraska, endeavoring to preserve the current state of all the vast grasslands under their care.

The conservation easement originated with a monetary donation from the Price family as part of their effort to reach conservation goals on their property.

"Conservation easements don't fit every landowner's goals," Jim Van Winkle, Sandhills Task Force Project Coordinator, said. "The Price's goal is to manage their land into the future and protect it from land use changes. The easement is one of the real estate tools that can be used to accomplish that."

“We have always believed that good land stewardship and conservation practices go hand in hand with ranch profitability. In discussing this easement, we felt it was a win-win for whoever owns the land in the future.”

Bob Price

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Van Winkle, a lifelong conservationist with a deep passion for the Sandhills, serves in numerous local leadership positions and is known to challenge Sandhills landowners to cooperatively develop partnerships to benefit land resources.

"It's been a pleasure to work with the Price family to help them reach their conservation goals," Van Winkle said. "The Sandhills Task Force (STF) board is composed of ranchers. We're pretty serious about property rights and ranching. Our philosophy is to find ways to preserve ranching and ranch lands."

Zach Rigg, NRCS representative at Lincoln who has been involved in the easement development, noted that the STF holds the easement.

"The agreement is intended to protect the ranch from some legal actions such as eminent domain," Riggs said. "Landowners surrender some rights in order to qualify for the agreement. Qualifying landowners also have to be in good financial standing. The easement isn't intended to rescue an operation."

Aaron Price confirms his father's note that money wasn't a primary consideration when the family made the decision to enter into the agreement.

"I'm the fourth generation of ranchers in our family," Aaron said. "We believe that cattle are the number one conservation tool on our ranch. We feel strongly that wildlife, cattle and water resources go hand in hand. We've been talking for 30 years about how we could preserve the ranch. We've partnered with the right people to help realize our conservation goals."

The National Audubon Society recently designated Gracie Creek Ranch as part of an important bird area. The endangered American Burying Beetle is also found on the ranch grasslands. Birds and other varieties of wildlife rely on the ranch's wetlands for habitat.

"We have always believed that good land stewardship and conservation practices go hand in hand with ranch profitability," Bob says. "In discussing this easement, we felt it was a win-win for whoever owns the land in the future."

One of the rights the Prices have surrendered through the agreement is ability to establish any kind of confined livestock operation, any farming activities and energy development, such as wind.

"We've been told we're not in an area where there's enough adequate wind for wind energy development," Bob says. "But we could be under threat of developments such as the Keystone Pipeline or other types of energy transmission projects."

Easements such as the Price's are voluntary, legal agreements in which landowners retain property and the right reside on excluded areas. Landowners are also able to continue existing agricultural activities on the land held in easement.

"We have always used cattle to harvest our forage," Bob says. "Our goal is to harvest standing forage on a year-round basis. We do maintain an emergency hay supply for the 'worst case' scenario. But we prefer to supplement grazing for our cattle during the dormant season."

Bob's strategy for managing the family's grassland has been to implement a planned grazing strategy. He believes the strength of the sandhills where Gracie Creek Ranch lies is in beef cattle production.

"Maximizing production can cause producers to walk a fine line," Bob says. "Over the years I've learned to optimize production in a way that's beneficial to me and to the land. If you take care of the land, it will take care of you."

The Prices see four elements on their ranch: people, livestock, wildlife and the land itself. Finding a balance between the four is what guides their management decisions.

"I'm not saying we do everything exactly right," Bob says. "But finding the balance between those four elements is always at the forefront of our decisions."

The Price family is well known for their successful conservation practices. In the 2012 drought, Bob was able to provide hay to surrounding ranches that ran short of forage due to dry conditions. Bob utilizes the practices his grandparents, Dee and Elvon, developed on their New Mexico ranch starting in 1916. His father, Jim, also raised cattle, developing a successful stocker operation.

Since the Prices came to Gracie Creek nearly 40 years ago, they have gradually evolved their grazing system from traditional season long use to two- to three-pasture rotation to intensive grazing practices that promote drought tolerance and species diversity.

"In theory, this easement agreement is forever," Bob says. "We gave it a lot of thought before we signed the dotted line. It's been amazing to us what development advances have taken place around us even in the past year. We expect pressure on land like Gracie Creek will increase all the time. It's just the way our world is moving. With the easement we feel we at least have a chance to protect the current state of the grasslands here. That's what's really important to us."