If you had several hundred thousand dollars to permanently conserve land in Nebraska’s Pine Ridge, where would you start? This is the question that the Nebraska Land Trust posed to its Pine Ridge Advisory Committee (PRAC) last October. At the time, it was a theoretical question but when the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) approved our $900,000 Pines and Buttes Preservation Project grant in April, this question became very real.
Since the NLT hopes to match the NET funds with federal funds for the purchase of conservation easements in both the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills, it is critical that these funds be spent on the best projects available. To decide what is best, the PRAC selected four areas to look at: Agricultural Resources, Natural Resources, Historic/Cultural Resources, and Community Sustainability. Under each broad category there are specific criteria where a parcel of land can gain a range of points, depending on the condition and quality of that resource.
For example, under Agricultural Resources, if a ranch management plan is in place a property could receive up to 100 points if it were a comprehensive plan that included grazing, forestry management, wildlife habitat, water resources, erosion, roads, and control of invasive species. Under Natural Resources, a property would get more points if it contained diverse resources, such as terrestrial habitat for at-risk species along with aquatic habitat like a cold-water trout stream.
Size is important too, as is location next to already protected lands because both ranching and wildlife need unfragmented landscapes to survive. Verified historical and cultural sites would receive additional points, as would economic activities that are compatible with conservation while contributing to the community, like bed and breakfast type lodging or tourism.
With the Pine Ridge ranking criteria completed, the NLT is now seeking to identify landowners who may be interested in permanent conservation of their property. As potential projects surface, the NLT will conduct site visits with a ranking team to assess each property’s conservation values using the criteria developed by the PRAC. The results will help to assure that NET and federal funds are well-spent by getting the most conservation bang for the buck. Eventually, an advisory committee will be established to craft criteria for the Wildcat Hills as well, so that the same project selection process can take place there.
Property owners in either landscape who may be interested in having their land assessed are encouraged to contact the NLT. While the first round of scoring will likely occur this fall, there will be additional opportunities in the future since the NET funds are granted over three years. It is also important to recognize that land conservation is a marathon, not a sprint. If the NET funds are well-spent and there are still more good projects than available funding allows, this would be one definition of success and encourage the NLT to do even more!