For Shane and Kristi Daniels and their daughters, the Horse Creek Fen Ranch – located deep in the Sandhills is home – officially. “It took a miracle to get us started,” Shane says, “but this is where we’ll be when we’re old and gray.”
The story began in 1997 when The Nature Conservancy – with the help of the Nebraska Environmental Trust - purchased the 3,240-acre Horse Creek Fen. The “fen” part of the ranch (about 20 acres) holds deep peat soils that nourish a mix of unusual moisture-loving plants, small fish and the globally-imperiled Blanding’s turtle. Rare trumpeter swans and whooping cranes also visit at times. “All we really needed to do was protect that fen,” says Jim Luchsinger, the Conservancy’s Middle Niobrara Program Director.
A conservation easement (a voluntary protection agreement) was established for the wetland, but something else in the region needed protection: family ranches. Such ranches have been disappearing as young people without substantial capital get shut out of the market and the land is consolidated into ever-larger operations. “The reason this land is in good condition is because ranchers have given it such good stewardship,” says Luchsinger. “We want to see that continue.”
The desire to foster that cooperation prompted conversations with the Sandhills Task Force, a nonprofit conservation and ranching group, and the talks led to the Beginning Rancher Program. The groups looked for a ranching family that was willing to trade a lot of sweat equity for the chance to eventually own the Horse Creek Fen ranch. Shane and Kristi Daniels, who have family roots in ranching, were chosen, and a five-year lease agreement was signed. The couple was given the option of buying the ranch at its 2005 appraised value, minus the price of the easement (which the Conservancy retains). A committee of mentors then helped them with financial and management decisions.
Five years of hard work later, the Daniels signed closing papers in December. “The Conservancy is thrilled to have the ranch and the fen in such good hands,” said Luchsinger. “We have known this family for a long time now, and we (the Conservancy and Sandhills Task Force) hope to continue the partnership. Buying the ranch is an important mile marker, but it’s not the end of the road.”