29 April 2008

Easement Project to Conserve Schramm Bluffs Along the Platte River

A grant of $1.1 million will be used for the Schramm Bluffs Preservation Project that will protect habitat diversity through the purchase of conservation easements from willing owners of private property in southwest Sarpy County.

View of the lower Platte River valley, as seen from Schramm State Park. Images courtesy of the Nebraska Land Trust.

The funds were provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

The Schramm Bluffs rose to the top of the priority list for the Nebraska Land Trust for four reasons”, according to Dave Sands, executive director of the nongovernmental group:

“1) The lower Platte River has been a focus for the NLT from our inception, due to its location in a region that is projected to have 2 million people by the year 2050;
2) The Schramm Bluffs stand out on the lower Platte due to the presence of significant natural and historical resources on private land;
3) Sarpy County currently has the fastest population growth of any county in Nebraska, creating development pressure that is unmatched in the state;
4) The final and most important reason is landowner support, because only a landowner can open the door to permanent protection of private land.”

At the heart of the 11,000-acre bluffs district is the 331-acre Schramm State Park, an Important Bird Area designated by the National Audubon Society.

“Schramm Park was selected as one of Audubon’s Important Bird Areas in Nebraska because of a combination of the quality of the hardwood forest and the exceptional diversity of birds that can be seen there,” according to Kevin Poague, manager for the IBA program in Nebraska. “The area also contains eastern oak-hickory woodland near the western edge of its range, along with restored and remnant tallgrass prairies.”

One restored prairie probably exceeds 40 acres, Sands said, with a relict virgin prairie of 5 to 10 acres.

The portion of the Platte River that flows adjacent to the Park was counted as part of the habitat. The Platte in this area has been designated as a Biologically Unique Landscape, where endangered interior Least Terns and threatened Piping Plovers nest on sand bars. Endangered pallid sturgeons occur in the river.

Limestone bluffs at Schramm State Park.

“A diverse assortment of songbirds visit the wooded hills and ravines each spring,” Poague said. Species of significant concern known to occur at the park include the American Bittern, Upland Sandpiper, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Short-eared Owl, Whip-poor-will, Red-headed woodpecker, Bell’s Vireo, Kentucky Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, and Dickcissel.

The importance of the area as a migratory stopover, also had a significant role in its IBA designation.

“Many species of warblers can be observed along the trails at Schramm,” Poague said, “as well as Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanagers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and many types of thrushes, finches, and sparrows. There is also an active Bald Eagle nest either on or near the property. The Park is easily one of the best sites in the area to visit during spring and fall migration.”

Several members of the nominating committee noted “that the woodlands at Schramm Park were excellent in terms of diversity and health. Forests that have healthy and sustainable layers of habitat (ground cover, shrubs, sapling trees, young trees, mature trees) can attract a wide variety of birds that forage and nest within these different layers. Proximity to known migration corridors (river systems in this case) and lack of intensive development (urban dwellings, farmsteads, acreages) are other bonuses.”

Having easements on surrounding land would help retain a high bird diversity, Poague explained. “Development close to the Park could hurt bird activity in the following ways: increased noise; increased light pollution; possible run-off from yard pesticides; increased human activity could drive people-sensitive species from the area; increased vehicle traffic could negatively affect bird numbers.”

Sands believes that the time for conservation may be limited, given the existing development pressure in Nebraska’s fastest growing county, including the proposed construction of an extensive business development at Pflug Road, where a new highway interchange is being considered.

“Fortunately, many landowners want to preserve agricultural, historical, and natural resources in the area,” Sands said. “For some families, there has been a tradition of good stewardship for more than 150 years. Conservation easements can offer an opportunity to assure that this legacy lasts far into the future.”

Landowners have responded favorably to efforts to conserve the bluffs.

Eleven of the 16 landowners that were sent inquiry letters regarding an interest in conservation easements responded favorably, Sands said, to allowing an assessment team of NLT Board members, including state, NRD, and federal biologists, to visit their land to identify notable natural resources.

In addition to preserving wildlife habitat and plant communities, land protection will help to preserve water quality in the Platte River, as well as scenic vistas that are viewed by millions of people each year from nearby state parks, public attractions, and Interstate-80.

Sunset in the Lower Platte valley, as viewed from Schramm State Park.

Placing a conservation easement can also lead to additional future efforts to conserve habitats, Sands said. “Once land is protected, it will become an excellent candidate for cost-share programs from various agencies, as habitat improvements could not be lost later on to development. In visiting with landowners last summer, a required question involved their willingness to participate in cost-share programs for habitat improvements and all expressed interest without exception, especially when it came to cedar removal.”

Other funding partners in this project include the Cooper Foundation, the Abel Foundation, and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District. Expertise and assistance has also been provided by the Fontenelle Nature Association, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Nebraska State Historical Society, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“When we first started on this project in 2006, I likened it to a steep climb up a mountain that would be difficult, but rewarding at the end,” he said. “This grant provides an immeasurable boost up the mountain that will not only preserve land and resources, but attract other funding partners in the future. If this landscape is successfully preserved, generations of Nebraskans will have the NET to thank for being the lynch pin that made it possible.”

“It has been a collaborative effort from the start,” Sands said, “because it offers a true win/win approach to the preservation of this beautiful landscape.”

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