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The Working Lands Initiative’s Inaugural Project

A restored wetland and 140 acres of former irrigated cropland near Norman, Nebraska represent the initial project in the Working Landscapes initiative, a collaborative effort of the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture partnership. Partners in this project include the Nebraska Environmental Trust, Ducks Unlimited, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever, and Tri-Basin Natural Resources District.

In 1999, a Kearney County farmer contacted the RWBJV for assistance in restoring a 15-acre wetland in the center of his field to improve habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The project included removing silt and invasive reed canary grass, and filling an irrigation re-use pit to allow the wetland to pond water. The following spring, ducks and even a pair of whooping cranes returned to the wetland, but eventually reed canary grass invaded the site again, choking out the wetland and reducing its habitat value.

By 2006, it was apparent to RWBJV partners that wetlands throughout the region, like this tract, were being choked out by invasive species like reed canary grass, cattails, and river bulrush. Lack of natural disturbances, such as grazing ungulates, flood-drought cycles, and fire, led to rapid succession of vegetation communities. RWBJV partners developed the Working Lands Initiative based on the concept that grazed and hayed wetlands have the best chance of maintaining early-successional plant communities – and therefore quality habitat – on private land.

Ducks Unlimited purchased the tract by leveraging funds from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the North American Wetlands Conservation Act. Later, DU donated a perpetual easement on the site to Tri-Basin Natural Resources District. The easement permits grazing and haying, but prohibits alteration of the wetland, plowing, or development. In 2007, the site was planted with native grass seed mix, and in 2010 the RWBJV paid to construct perimeter fence and install an electric well to facilitate grazing. In 2011, with the grasses well established, the property was offered for sale as non-irrigated pasture land.

Multiple parties benefit from the Working Landscapes approach: the reduction in irrigated acres in the Tri-Basin NRD reduces demand on groundwater and helps meet the goals of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program; the property remains on the tax rolls as an active part of the local economy; and the restored wetland, as grazing land, will maintain high-quality habitat for migratory birds.