USDA Undersecretary Tours Nebraska's Rainwater Basin Wetlands

USDA Undersecretary Tours Nebraska's Rainwater Basin Wetlands

Ann Mills witnesses collaboration between government agencies and landowners.

Dave White, chief of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, has often said his agency wants to be more farmer-friendly and to focus on working lands conservation programs. USDA's deputy undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, Ann Mills, came to Nebraska's Rainwater Basin last month and found out firsthand that agencies and landowners are collaborating on projects to restore wetlands.

Ann Mills, USDA undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.

The Rainwater Basin complex of wetlands is spread across 17 south-central Nebraska counties. It is the narrowest point of the waterfowl migration route known as the Central Flyway. Millions of geese, ducks, shorebirds and cranes funnel through the basin each spring. Ninety-nine percent of the land in the Rainwater Basin is privately owned, so cooperation is essential to restoring wetlands and creating habitat.

That cooperation hasn't always been the case in years past. Landowners experienced a regulation-first, sometimes adversarial approach to working with wetlands on their property.

 "I saw successful partnerships among private landowners and the local, state and federal agencies in this region," she said, following a tour of several wetland restoration projects in York County. "Voluntary conservation, agency flexibility and local solutions are the keys to making this work."

The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, established in 1992, is a partnership that includes federal, state, and local conservation groups, non-governmental agencies and landowners. The partnership identifies wetlands that need restored and works with individual agencies to carry out projects.

It's not easy to maneuver through the alphabet-soup collection of agencies and conservation groups and programs involved in this region.

Among the agencies and conservation groups who either acquire wetlands outright or purchase easements or carry out projects are NRCS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Ducks Unlimited. Counties and natural resources districts are also involved.

Incentive programs include the Wetland Reserve Program, Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program and EQIP; the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Program; and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. The Nebraska Environmental Trust has granted funds to these entities for wetland projects.

Wetland restoration projects the partners focus on now with landowners include filling old irrigation reuse pits and promoting grazing on the wetland.

Steve Shaw, a Clay County farmer, cattlemen and joint venture board member, said during the tour that for the projects to work and gain more landowner interest the agencies have "to work with people and make their programs and rules more flexible."

Shaw and Roger Houdersheldt, chairman of the Upper Big Blue NRD, both cited a recent program that allows center pivots to cross small enrolled wetlands. In the past, pivots would have to stop before crossing them.

"That was one of the best things the agencies did," Houdersheldt said. "Before, the restriction was inflexible and affected how you watered the rest of the circle."

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