For many landowners in south central Nebraska, conservation and agriculture go hand in hand. But for two farmers in south central Nebraska, conservation and agriculture mean different things. For one, it means creating a more economical farming operation. For the other, it means creating more wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. Despite differing end goals, these two landowners came together to create a better future for the next generation.
In 2016, Kurt Kleinschmidt received a letter in the mail from the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) detailing the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP) program. WREP is a program option through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) that provides landowners with a financial incentive to restore, protect, and enhance the wetlands on their property in exchange for placing the marginal agricultural land into a conservation easement.
One of the main reasons Kurt decided to look further into the WREP program was because of the financial benefits it provided him. If the property is enrolled in a permanent easement the perpetual easement payment will be based on the appraised value, while also having 100% of the restoration costs covered by the NRCS. Another important factor for Kurt was the flexibility to still pass a pivot over the enrolled acres, enabling him to maintain profitability by continuing to irrigate surrounding cropland that was not enrolled into WREP.
In 2017, his application for a WREP contract was accepted. However, funding shortages delayed the project another year. So, what seemed like a setback at the time, was actually a blessing in disguise because in 2018 a nearby landowner received the same NRCS mailing that Kurt had received a few years earlier.
Mike and Tami Ely, of Triple E Farms, had also been looking at enrolling their land into the WREP program, which just so happened to be next to the Kleinschmidt property. With the nearby property already enrolled as WREP, the adjacent Ely property ranked higher in the application process because it would create a “roundout”. This roundout allowed the easement to encompass the entire wetland footprint, something that doesn’t always occur but is a high priority for the NRCS since it means the entire wetland will be restored and protected. By creating this roundout, a little over 400 acres of land was enrolled in the WREP program, with roughly 36 acres being wetland.
The next step after getting the land enrolled is to determine the landowners’ management goals. The flexibility to run a pivot through their wetland was something both landowners wanted to be able to do after the wetland restoration was complete. The other management goals for both landowners were to create wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.
“I’m looking forward to what it does for future generations to be able to enjoy the outdoor recreation it will establish,” Mike Ely said.
After establishing the landowner goals, NRCS begins developing the WREP plan for the property. All management for WREP contracts requires authorization by the NRCS and that process begins with the Bioengineering Teams (BE-Teams). The BE-Teams usually include NRCS engineers, NRCS Habitat Easement Specialists, NRCS soil scientists, and biologists from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission (NGPC) and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). This team provides input to NRCS for any compatible use authorizations (CUA) that may be needed to start management of WREP properties. A CUA is a request to conduct an activity on the WREP that will both further the long-term protection and enhancement of the wetland and other natural values of the project area. It also gives the landowner flexibility in the management of their land through conservation practices like food plots, vegetation management, and other wetland enhancements.
Management on the Kleinschmidt-Ely properties consisted of managing vegetation by returning it to a plant community that would be consistent with playa wetlands habitat. Elle Nugent, a current Ducks Unlimited biologist and, at the time, the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) Habitat Specialist for the project said, “by managing the plant community we can modify the habitat and make it better for the wildlife.”
Managing vegetation on properties enrolled in WREP can include practices such as prescribed fire, disking, grazing, or spraying. For the Kleinschmidt-Ely property, initial management included installing fencing and livestock water facilities which, through the WREP program, is accomplished with 85% cost-share funding from NRCS partners like the RWBJV. Future management of the property will include the continued disturbance of the soil. In the past, Playa Wetlands would be disturbed by wildfires and grazing bison or elk. Today, disturbances are created by reseeding upland areas to native grasses and forbs, spraying, prescribed fire, and using grazing livestock.
A restoration BE-Team is also formed to help create a restoration plan for the wetland. The restoration of the Kleinschmidt-Ely property meant looking back at the past to determine what could be done to return it to a functioning Playa Wetland. The main goal of a wetland restoration is to improve the hydrology of the wetland by filling pits, removing sedimentation, or plugging ditches, all while not adding water to the surrounding properties.
The on-site restoration process for the property began with filling 3 irrigation reuse pits. By using on-site soil material, NRCS engineers were able to change the hydrology of the wetland and allow water to spread out across the property. Thus, creating shallower wetlands that are more suitable for wetland specific bird species.
Both the management and restoration of a WREP property require a team effort from multiple conservation organizations. The NRCS provides biologists, engineers, and habitat specialists throughout the process. The FWS and NGPC provides input through BE-Team meetings and consultations. The RWBJV also provides cost-share for pivot modifications and other restoration or enhancement projects beyond the NRCS requirements. Other outside organizations include Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever. Ducks Unlimited can use the Revolving Lands Program to protect habitat and wetland areas. Pheasants Forever creates native seed mixes and burn plans for NRCS staff to implement on the WREP properties.
While the initial management and restoration by the BE-Teams and other conservation organizations gets the WREP process off to a good start; it’s what happens in the days and years to come that creates a better future for both the landowner and the wetland.
“It’s kind of like farming.” Kurt Kleinschmidt says. “You look forward to watching the work in progress.”
Whether it’s creating a more profitable farming operation, recharging the groundwater, or creating more habitat for wildlife, the NRCS is committed to conserving natural resources to help create a positive impact on agricultural operations. Through the teamwork of conservation organizations and landowners, we can continue to ensure that both conservation and agriculture can work together to create a better future for everyone.