"Partnerships have helped me financially to do things I couldn't afford to do by myself. Improving our ranches by enhancing forage production and utilization, restoring the condition of the riparian areas along the North Platte and Birdwood Creek, enhancing wildlife habitat and protecting the water quality of our aquatic systems are things I wanted to do. I think they are the right things to do," said Mike Kelly.
The Kelly ranches lie on the southern edge of of the Nebraska Sandhills, a highly productive but also extremely fragile landscape of grass-stabilized sand dunes. The family started ranching in 1885, and have sought partners, including The Nature Conservancy, to reach their goals for sustainable range management. They were awarded the National Cattlemen's Environmental Stewardship Award in 2003 for their outstanding efforts.
The Conservancy's Kelly tract is located on the northern edge of the North Platte River valley with approximately three miles of river frontage. The Conservancy bought this property from the Kelly family in 1999. That land is now leased back to the family. The Conservancy also retained an easement on 493 acres (mostly cropland and the ranch headquarters) but sold it back to the family. The Kelly tract is on the western end of the crane roost area between North Platte and Sutherland. It boasts a great blue heronry and lowland prairie with pockets of wet meadows and wetland habitat. Management includes a combination of grazing and haying designed to improve plant diversity and provide habitat for migratory cranes and breeding birds.
One of only two major Sandhills streams that drain into the North Platte River (the other is Blue Creek), Birdwood Creek's watershed is entirely contained within the Sandhills. This is an exceptional stream noted for its unique hydrology, diverse wildlife, and high-quality riparian areas. In an effort to seek solutions compatible with Nebraska's ranching culture and economy, the Conservancy acquired a 9,920-acre easement along the creek.
The Kellys have worked to develop a grazing regime that allows recovery of plant communities. The development of pipelines and wells on the uplands has provided alternative watering sources to facilitate this management strategy.
Fed from the Ogallala Aquifer, Birdwood Creek is among the most steadily flowing waterways in the world. Steep bluffs rise above the creek, revealing the soil's sedimentary record that has provided invaluable information about the geologic formation of the Sandhills. Well known for its "boiling" springs, Birdwood Creek's springs ebb and flow with shifts in barometric pressure.
The site is noteworthy for its riparian corridor, native wetlands, and sandhills prairie. Riparian corridors are fragile habitats, easily altered by channelization and inappropriate grazing. "The purpose of the easement is to keep the land as part of a working ranch and ensure that the high-quality areas along the creek are sustained," said Mace Hack, Nebraska State Director.
The Birdwood Creek project represents the first large-scale effort to apply a conservation easement on a Sandhills stream. The partners hope it will demonstrate the shared objectives of the Conservancy and the Kelly family - and the feasibility of using conservation easements on private lands. "Cattle producers and The Nature Conservancy in the Sandhills share many of the same goals," says Mike Kelly. "A rancher must be a good steward of the resource to be successful. By working together and sharing resources, we have a unique opportunity to maintain and improve this fragile Sandhills environment for future generations."
While the initial project began with the Conservancy and Mike Kelly, it's grown to include several other partners. The Natural Resources Conservation Service and Nebraska Grazing Lands Coalition provided technical expertise and funding for the riparian restoration. The Sandhills Task Force's Resource Conservation Fund provided financial support in acquiring the easement.