Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Ranch Management in Nebraska

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:02/10/2011

Envisioning a program to conserve high plains shortgrass prairie, generate ranch income, and educate the public about the Great Plains

There are always more questions than answers.  

At the Prairie Plains Resource Institute, a 31-year-old educational land trust in Nebraska, restoration of high diversity tallgrass prairie ecosystems in eastern Nebraska is their core activity and source of revenue.  They also are involved with land education and with management of six small prairie preserves. Ranch management in western Nebraska, on the other hand, is a work in progress.
Bill Whitney, Executive Director of the Institute says, “We lease our 4,944-acre Guadalcanal Ranch near Harrison in the northwest corner of the state to Scott Schaefer, a homegrown young man who loves agriculture.  He wants to do the right thing for the resource and make a living for his family. 

“The Prairie Plains goal is to layer an educational process onto the working ranch, covering the gamut of natural history, history and agriculture.   The idea is to explore new income streams for the ranch while educating people who know little about the Great Plains.  There’s a lot of compatibility.   But we need to determine how agritourism , ecotourism, research and field study fit with the working aspects of the ranch.    Also, who is our potential audience, and exactly what do we have to offer?”   That’s how Mr. Whitney found me:   while researching ranch stewardship he discovered PLN.

One of the Central Problems in Ranching

“Scott and I are learning from each other,” Whitney continues.  “He’s taught me one of the central problems in ranching.  When cattlemen add value to their livestock through good native prairie nutrition and genetics, and make real conservation progress and productivity improvements to their ranch, they don’t necessarily get a reward at the sale barn for their calves! 

“Ranchers are victims of the McDonald’s and Wendy’s mass market that rewards pounds regardless of quality and flavor.  Our young lessee is frustrated by this, yet it is hard to direct-market or make a regional marketing label based on land stewardship, much less the harder route to grass-fed ranching and associated specialty markets.

“We want to make our ranch tenant stronger in his business while improving ranch infrastructure, biodiversity and sustainability.  But,” Whitney adds, “it’s a work in progress.”

The Two Nebraskas: East and Panhandle

Nebraska, the Cornhusker state, is far more than endless cornfields.  Nebraska has a moisture and altitudinal gradient, which runs from above 34 inches annual precipitation/1000 feet elevation in the southeast to around 15 inches of precipitation/4800 feet in the northwest.

Eastern Nebraska's longer growing season and soils are good for raising soybeans and corn where tallgrass prairie once grew.  Whitney says most of his staff's time is spent in east-central Nebraska, where they do high diversity tallgrass prairie restoration.  “We also have six prairie properties, which we burn and graze.  When we started prescribed burning 30 years ago, it was a scary word to some, but a lot of private landowners want to burn now.” 

About 80 to 90 percent of western Nebraska is still native shortgrass prairie.  Because of the rugged terrain, it is harder to irrigate and thus not a lot of the land is cultivated.  Much of it still harbors a significant diversity of plants and animals precisely because of the traditional grazing practices, which maintain native grassland vegetation.

“What we’re after on Guadalcanal Ranch is that the working ranch be viable,” continues Whitney.  “It’s on the headwaters of the Niobrara River, one of the Plains’ most interesting, running across Nebraska’s northern tier. The ranch overlies hundreds of feet of saturated fresh water aquifer.  It harbors rare headwater fish, grassland bird species, a rare orchid and a world-class fossil bed.  We want our lessee to have a good business while maintaining the biodiversity and protecting the rarer things.”  

Room for Improvement in the Wide Open Spaces  

As a stewardship organization, Prairie Plains faces several communication challenges. Whitney says “There has to be a cultural basis for stewardship.  In our throw-away urbanized culture, it’s extremely hard.  The average city dweller and even many rural townspeople don’t seem to know much about the landscapes that provide food, water or natural amenities, much less the people who work on the land.” 

When it comes to landowner outreach, “our message is that there's always more to learn about your own land's resources,” Whitney says.  “For example, in eastern Nebraska not all people who graze livestock see themselves fundamentally as plant producers.  Consequently, they don’t know plants very well. Knowledge is a powerful thing, and learning more details - such as plants and basic ecology - could help them restore their native pasture to a more diverse and productive state.  The point is that culturally, Prairie Plains Resource Institute isn’t going to get anywhere in conservation without affecting people’s perception of where they live.  That’s our approach.  It's slow, and it’s usually one on one. 

“I’m from Nebraska, and I’ve never lived in another place.  The landscape, social context and sheer scale of things out here on the Great Plains is awesome.  I think the access to space is incomparable - you see a long way.  Exposing others to that is amazing (and something that will get a boost with the Michael Forsberg's Great Plains documentary this year)."

With the help of organizations like the Prairie Plains Resource Institute, understanding and appreciation of our wide-open heritage is growing.




re: Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Ranch Management in Nebraska
By: Bob Edgerton on: 02/11/2011

It is great to learn about this activity in eastern ne and northwestern ne. I will be sharing this with my family. Our roots are still in Ne. Good to hear that the roots are flourishing.

re: Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Ranch Management in Nebraska
By: Stephen Winter on: 02/11/2011

Full-disclosure: I'm on the Prairie Plains Board of Directors. Amos, I enjoyed your article. During my involvement with the Prairie Plains Resource Institute, both as a long-time member and more recently through my service on the Board of Directors, I've been very impressed with the relationship that PPRI has been building with Scott Schaefer and the larger community of the Nebraska panhandle. It is a valuable model for preserving rural communities and conservation values.