To some, it might seem like kind of a contradictory proposition: putting a conservation easement (a strategy usually reserved for grassland preservation) on cropland, with the intention of keeping it… cropland.
Indeed, this project represents the first occurrence in the Platte River Valley of a conservation easement that protects wildlife habitats while also maintaining row-crop agriculture.
Location, location, location
The Nature Conservancy never meant to keep the 153-acre Leaman tract. It was purchased in June of 2005 with the intention of selling or trading the land with retained conservation easement rights. “We wanted a local landowner or partner who shared our commitment to protecting the biological integrity of the both the tract and the surrounding lands,” said John Heaston, Platte River Program Director.
The surrounding lands are owned by The Crane Trust and The Nature Conservancy. The Leaman property was purchased because it provides critical buffer protection for existing wetland and prairie habitats on these conservation sites, while also being part of a major sandhill crane roost site along the Platte River. Find it on a map.
If this land went out of farming and was developed- either with sand and gravel mining or housing - there would be disturbance to one of the most important roosting sites for sandhill cranes on the Platte River. Because of its location, incompatible land uses on the Leaman Tract would pose serious threats to the natural habitats around the tract and the crane roost. Excessive noise and visual disturbances on the tract, especially at dawn, dusk, and at night, could severely disrupt the cranes’ use of this vital roost.
Housing development on the tract could also introduce invasive plant species to the surrounding prairies, prohibit the use of common and necessary prairie management practices like prescribed fire, and present a source of predators (e.g. free-running dogs and cats) to native wildlife, most seriously the threatened and endangered species nesting on Platte River sandbars.
Good for People, Good for Birds
The staging of sandhill cranes during spring migration on the Platte River is a unique world-wide ecological phenomenon. It is also a critical element in the life cycle of the mid-continental population of sandhill crane. Each spring, between 500,000 and 600,000 cranes concentrate on the Central Valley of the Platte River. Roosts numbering in the tens of thousands are scattered throughout the Platte River. Cranes roost on the river but forage in adjacent fields and grasslands. Each sandhill crane spends between one and four weeks foraging and accumulating energy reserves in the form of fat. This accumulated energy is critical, as it provides the necessary fuel for the continued migration to nesting areas and the energetic reserves required for successful breeding.
Farming is compatible with cranes and other migratory birds that like to roost in flat cropland and eat waste grain left in the field. The birds don't interfere with farming because they migrate through the area before spring planting and after fall harvest.
An important piece of the puzzle
This project is part of a larger effort by the Conservancy and its partners to sustain the unique biological diversity of the Big Bend region. To do this, it is critical to build larger habitat complexes and employ landscape-scale management tools such as prescribed fire and restoration of cropland to grassland in locations where crop production capability is low. The Leaman easement provides a valuable complement to the application of these tools.
One barrier to conservation work on the Platte River has been a concern over competition between agriculture and wildlife conservation. “We wanted to addresses this concern by demonstrating the mutual benefits that a conservation easement can provide; here we are allowing traditional agriculture uses on productive soils while restricting future development that threatens the long-term interests of both farmers and conservation groups,” explained Heaston. To maximize these benefits, the Conservancy gave preference to the bid of a local producer with whom it was felt a strong partnership could be maintained, and who was willing to help the Conservancy foster a greater understanding of this tool with other producers in the region.
In April of 2008, Troy Rainforth (who had previously rented the property) purchased the tract with a conservation easement. The agreement allows him to use the land for a wide array of habitat-compatible purposes, including irrigated row-crop agriculture, hunting, and grazing. The easement prevents subdivision, housing development, and sand or gravel mining. Rainforth also agreed not to allow a cell phone tower to be placed on the land or to sell its topsoil.
“We are grateful to work with Troy, and having this first project working well may mean that we’ll be able to do similar easements in the future,” concluded Heaston. “We can continue to find ways to restore habitat that is compatible with human needs.”