Nebraska’s 56,000-acre Niobrara Valley Preserve made headlines in July when much of it went up in flames—a casualty of one of the numerous wildfires that broke out across the United States during the hot, dry summer.
Now the Preserve is in the spotlight again, for an equally hot reason: the economic benefits of controlled burning for ranchers.
A new study from The Nature Conservancy found that controlled burning of grasslands not only improves grasslands from an ecological perspective, it may also increase income for ranching families.
Researchers captured data for sites cleared of invasive eastern redcedar trees - either mechanically or with controlled burns - and found that removal of the invasive cedar resulted in a 22% increase in the groundcover that bison and cattle like to graze. More grazing translates into more income.
The study was conducted at the Conservancy’s 56,000-acre Niobrara Valley Preserve in north-central Nebraska—a demonstration site for grassland management and restoration. “The Niobrara Valley Preserve has become a living laboratory where the Conservancy and our neighbors could establish a shared vision for our community and landscape, new management approaches could be tried, and we could work toward common goals,” says Jim Luchsinger, Sandhills-Northwest Prairies Program Director at the Conservancy.
Some ranchers have been resistant to controlled burning—it has been seen as an extra risk in an already risky business—yet ecologists know that grasslands need routine burning to thrive. Perhaps the ultimate success of the effort was the cultural transformation that took place: focus group participants estimated that the community’s acceptance and adoption of controlled burning went from 10% in 1990 to 50% in 2010.
What was the key to success? “Patient persistence”, according to researchers. It is one of the Conservancy’s older preserves, purchased in the early 1980s.
Other success factors cited by the study include:
• Leading by example: The Preserve demonstrated the benefits of cedar removal and controlled burns, and several Preserve staff did the same on their own land.
• Policy link: The Preserve staff connected on-the-ground practices to the policy level by proactively engaging in creating government incentives to replicate the Preserve’s land-management practices at a broader scale.
While the study’s findings may be specific to this part of Nebraska, the researchers identified key factors that could be readily replicated at other grassland sites around the globe. Some 800 million people worldwide live near grasslands and depend on them for their livelihoods, yet grasslands are one of the world’s most imperiled habitats—threatened by conversion to agriculture, development and timber plantations. The Niobrara Valley Preserve study is one of four where the Conservancy assessed the socioeconomic benefits of healthy grasslands to people; the other sites are in Kenya, South Africa and Mongolia.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.