In the summer of 2012, much of Nebraska’s ponderosa pine forest was ablaze. From the central Niobrara Valley to the western reaches of the Pine Ridge, historic drought, heat and wind created perfect conditions for the most destructive wildfire season in Nebraska’s recorded history.
In late August, a wildfire tore through West Ash Creek Canyon near Crawford. As the fire closed in on Wohlers Ranch, homesteaded by Henry “Dutch” Wohlers in 1884 at the head of the canyon, a strange thing happened. The flames dropped from the forest crown to the ground and burned through the woodlands as a grassfire, sparing a large grove of ponderosa pine that now provide a “seed island” that could eventually help to repopulate the scorched watershed.
While it might have seemed like divine intervention, it was actually human intervention that spared the forest. Prior to the fire, the family had worked with the Nebraska Forest Service to thin and limb ponderosa pines on their land, earning the designation of Stewardship Forest. In addition, as part of a working ranch the grass had been grazed, further reducing fuel for wildfire. The result is striking as burnt trees now surround an oasis of living pines. It is a testament to effective forest management that can make western pine forests more resilient to wildfire.
Forest stewardship is just one example of a conservation ethic that has been with the Wohlers family through five generations in the Pine Ridge, 135 years and counting. Taylor Wohlers is the fifth generation to steward the land with his wife Tamara and two young children, Jack and Dutch. As with previous generations, their family’s past and future on the land is a part of who they are, so they decided to take stewardship to another level by placing a conservation easement on their ranch with the Nebraska Land Trust (NLT) last December.
“Our land is livelihood,” Tamara explained. “So our land means everything to us…we would take any measure to preserve the land so it continues to provide for us. With the history of the property and having been in the family for so long, it was a unique opportunity and definitely something worth protecting. Ranchers who actually run a true ranch instead of a hobby ranch are finding it harder and harder to find land sections of more than 100 acres, so with the amount we have we want to protect the ranch, preserve the land and make it so our kids can ranch on the family homestead as well.”
When Tamara speaks of the “family homestead” she means it quite literally, as their family lives on the actual site homesteaded by the Wohlers family in 1884. A large red barn built without blueprints nearly 100 years ago from locally harvested lumber is a local landmark. It also has national significance, as it and several other buildings from the original homestead are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Tamara also referenced the challenge young ranchers face in competing with out-of-state buyers who want recreational land for a “hobby ranch.” This competition for land is real in the Pine Ridge. According to the 2017 Nebraska Farm Real Estate Market Survey, 45% of land buyers in northwest Nebraska were not farmers or ranchers – the highest percentage of non-agricultural buyers in any region by far. Northwest Nebraska also led the state in out-of-state buyers, who accounted for 36% of land purchases. By comparison, northern Nebraska was runner-up with 4%. When ranching is replaced by recreation, land can change from a family livelihood to an asset; an asset that can be maximized through subdivision for recreation.
Recognizing this threat to ranchland, the Natural Resources Conservation Service provides funding to purchase conservation easements through their Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) program. Fifty percent of the funding to purchase this easement came from the ALE program, with the remainder coming from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Nebraska Big Game Society. Transaction costs were supported by the Sterns Charitable Foundation and the Wohlers family who generously endowed their easement. The NLT’s Pine Ridge Advisory Committee also played a role by recommending the project to the NLT Board of Directors after scoring 14 properties, totaling more than 17,000 acres.
In explaining the benefits of a conservation easement to their family, Tamara pointed out that it “helped us to get on our feet a bit more and further our ranch. We hope to acquire more land and as Taylor says, ‘run the biggest ranch in Nebraska.’ Really what it all boils down to is your passion and what you want to save for your kids so they can hopefully develop similar passions. Without land conservation, ranching in the Wohlers Family could become a thing of the past. Conserving the land more or less ensures that there will always be a bit of land to continue the tradition on.”