Benefits from Every Angle: the Santee Sioux’s Land Restoration Work

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A mid-August view from the “High Bench” before restoration work started.

They call it the High Bench: The view from a prairie ridge south of Santee overlooks a natural heritage of blazing star, goldenrod, little bluestem, and oaks. But the beautiful view is threatened and the Santee Sioux Nation has partnered with multiple conservation agencies to restore the tallgrass prairie and oak woodlands. The restoration work started in October 2018 and will benefit people, plants, and wildlife in multiple ways.

Historically, frequent wildfires maintained open prairies and sunny oak woodlands along the Missouri River by preventing the spread of eastern red-cedar and other brush. Lack of fire in the woodlands has promoted the invasion of shade-tolerant native trees and shrubs, such as hackberry and dogwood, and non-native species such as Siberian elm and buckthorn. The now-dense trees shade out native grasses and wildflowers on the woodland floor and reduce sunlight needed by the next generation of oaks to sprout and grow.

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Rough blazing star and big bluestem thrive in tallgrass prairie on the project site near the edge of the oak woodland.
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Dogwood and eastern redcedar are expanding from the woodland, displacing native prairie plants.
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Eastern redcedar crowds oaks, limiting the amount of light reaching the forest floor, which results in bare ground.

To restore these plant communities, the Santee Sioux Nation partnered with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Northern Prairies Land Trust, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and Nebraska Forest Service to plan 122 acres of cedar removal and 207 acres of woodland thinning. These projects would allow the Santee to reintroduce prescribed fire into the area. The project builds on previous restoration work by the Santee Sioux. Using the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Tribe has controlled invasive brush and adjusted grazing practices to support tallgrass prairie health and the use of prescribed fire.

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The Santee Hazardous Fuels Program crew is working to restore tallgrass prairie and oak woodland to benefit people, plants, and wildlife.

Prescribed fire is a familiar tool for the Santee Tribe. The Santee Hazardous Fuels crew often conducts prescribed fires on its own and other tribal lands in Nebraska. After some training, crew members were able to add tree identification and forest management techniques to their résumés.

Duwayne Traversie, BIA Fuels Specialist, said that employees of the Fuels Program are strengthening leadership abilities and developing career skills in natural resource management through this project. Theo Wright, a crew member, agrees: “training opportunities are more limited elsewhere. [This program] is more diverse and opens more paths.” Brittany Iron Shell, crew supervisor, adds, “I love science and being outdoors and it’s cool to combine it all into one career.”

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Chris Wood (NPLT) and Steve Rasmussen (NFS) provide training in tree identification and forest thinning to the Santee Hazardous Fuels Crew.

The woodland and prairie work will not only benefit native plants, but also game species such as turkeys, squirrels, and white-tailed deer, and rare animals, such as the northern long-eared bat, Bell’s vireo, and monarch and regal fritillary butterfly.

During his lifetime, crew member Jeremy Archampeau has observed a decline in traditional medicinal plants in the area. “I am interested to see if the project helps those medicinal plants come back,” he said.  Crew supervisor Leslie Brownrigg is excited about the effects of their work. “I see more opportunities [on Santee land] to do the same thing: getting more of the landscape back to its natural state, opening up rangeland and bringing back native grasses.”

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Crew members remove dogwood brush from the oak woodland understory. Photo credit: Brittany Iron Shell

Perhaps the most exciting results cannot be seen from the High Bench. The project’s social and economic benefits will strengthen community connections to conservation and the land. Not only were crew members kept employed during a slow time of year, but the crew’s size was actually expanded for the project. Hank Miller, Math and Science Division Head at Nebraska Indian Community College hopes to use the project for environmental monitoring sites for his students. Trees cut from the woodland are available to tribal members for home heating. Brush-free and healthy grasslands and forests will benefit the tribal ranching program and buffer the town of Santee from high intensity wildfires. Crew member David Freemont sums it up well: “I am happy to be part of this project because it will have so many positive impacts.”

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Leslie Brownrigg and Brittany Iron Shell place a post to mark where the crew will take photos to monitor progress on the project over time.
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A regal fritillary we found on the project site. This butterfly is rapidly disappearing from many parts of its range. It depends on healthy tallgrass prairie.

This project is also an effort of the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project and NGPC’s WILD Nebraska Habitat Program. In addition to the partners mentioned above, funding is provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund.

Authors:
Jennifer Corman – Northern Prairies Land Trust
Cassidy Wessel – Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
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Section 7: A History of Warrick Prairies

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust
With permission from: Robert Warrick, Landowner

Robert Warrick is a conservation minded landowner who has lived most of his life in Meadow Grove, Nebraska.  In 2008, with the help of the Northern Prairies Land Trust, Warrick and Sons Inc. placed a conservation easement on what he calls ‘Section 7’.  Section 7 is a piece of land in Pierce County, Nebraska that Robert first began to know over seventy years ago.  Below, Robert passed on to me a little history of that land now known as Warrick Prairies.

My first remembrance and contact with what I will call ‘Section 7’ was when I was in grade school in Meadow Grove, (about 10 south of Section 7) in the 1940’s.  Section 7 was part of a large area that was taken over by the United States War Department in the 1940’s during World War 2 and was called ‘Pierce Air to Ground Gunnery Range’. It was a couple thousand acres and Section 7 was the center of constant air bombing and fighter plane strafing.  As a young boy in grade school, my parents would take my brother and sister to a hill overlooking the area and we would watch as P47 and B24 bombers would come in at tree top level and practice blasting the poor sand dunes.  Between sorties, we would run out into the range and pick up spent 50 caliber casings and many times, live ammunition.  Dangerous?  Probably, but it was really exciting.  For many years I had an official sign that I had “borrowed” from the range. It read in large red lettering:  ‘Air Ground Gunnery Range KEEP OUT’. It was placed, appropriately, above my toilet stool.

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Landowner Robert Warrick points out gunnery damage still seen today.

Section 7 actually had a target, made on the land, by the Army.  It was many hundreds of feet in diameter, which can still be seen when the light is right.  I remember in the 40’s a large U.S. Army convoy came through Meadow Grove on the way to build a replica of a town on section 7 so that fighter pilots and bombers could practice shooting and bombing.  When I first started grazing cattle on Section 7 I made it a practice to pick parts of bombs that were partially buried or broken.  Many times they would fill the box of the pickup.  I have received notices recently, “As part of the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, munitions may still be present on Section 7. These munitions may pose an explosive hazard to you, your family other property users, or the public.  The Army recommends you share the enclose information with those who use your property, including those who lease or rent your property”.  THAT I HAVE DONE!

For many years after the closing of the Gunnery Range, farmers in the area would be tormented by ammunition clips of the 50 caliber machine guns from the planes.  They would be picked up by their cultivator on the shovels, while cultivating corn.

The Warrick & Sons Inc. placed the conservation easement on Section 7-25-3 in Pierce County, NE through the Northern Prairies Land Trust on 04/28/2008.  . Warrick & Sons have owned this Pierce section since 1988.  Robert Warrick (the author) is President of Warrick & Sons Inc. My wife Gudrun, my brother Jack and his wife Jean are the only stockholders in the corporation.  It is a family corporation, registered with the State of Nebraska. 

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Conservation Easement Boundary of Section 7.

My Great Grandfather Theodore A. Shafer, homesteaded in Madison County in 1879.  Warrick & Son’s received the Pioneer Farm Award in May, 1979. That land is still owned by my wife and myself. My grandfather J. W. Warrick came west in the 1870’s, He started a rural business in Meadow Grove, prospered, bought the land that I farmed.  My great grandfather Shafer retired to California on a small pension he received from the federal government from wounds he received in the civil war.”

A landowner I know in Dodge County, Nebraska who has spent his life farming and caring for his land was just recently interviewed about proposed cuts to the Farm Bill Conservation Stewardship Program.  The last line he repeated, and it has found a place in most of my days since.  He said, “The land remembers. The land remembers.”

Those of us who have been out to Section 7 with Robert Warrick have seen his work on restoring this piece of land. The scars left behind are easily recognizable.  The land remembers.  Perhaps anyone who spends a lifetime knowing a piece of land understands this secret. Robert Warrick knows the sentiment, “Blowouts can still be seen caused by this military training.  It is all now in private ownership and is healing, but it takes care and time to heal man’s follies and ventures.”

Thank you Robert for sharing this piece of history.  Your passion, dedication and love of the prairie inspires all who you give your time to. Thank you.

Pasque Flowers: Harbingers of Spring

“Early in the spring, when the snow has scarcely melted, the Northern Great Plains are covered with gray-blue flowers that look like smoke hovering over the prairie. These are the fuzzy pasque flowers–“very brave little flowers,” say the Cree Indians, “that arrive while it is still so cold that they must come wearing their fur coats.”
~Melvin R. Gilmore, Prairie Smoke 1929
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Pasque Flowers in their “fur coats” ready to bloom. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

I know of a place that holds a secret.  It’s a small patch of prairie soil.  Once, in early spring, during my first years out of a college, a mentor of mine drove out to this southeast quarter section and first shared what came to be for me, the magic of pasque flowers.   A handful of years later, I ended up living on a small acreage just across the road from that very place.  Ever since, spring has been marked by the hunt for the first blooms of spring.

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

The end of winter is always hard on me. I want sun, warmth in my bones and to sleep with my windows open. To me, stumbling upon a south facing slope with eyes trained on the ground, pasque flowers represent the stretching into the light and reaching out from under the symbolic death of winter. Or as Glimore wrote it, “… pasque flowers again bring their cheering promise of coming spring.”  With snow on the ground and all else still dead or dormant, these slight lavender blooms stand out against the gray browns.  Fragile but with a sense of duty to herald the life that is coming back to the prairie, pasque flowers are, again Gilmore, the “…first gladsome harbingers of the lovely hosts to follow.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Ethnobotanist Melvin R. Gilmore, among other great accomplishments, collected Native American uses, stories and lore of the great plains plants and animals, including the pasque flower.  He writes,

“They [Native Americans] have songs and stories about many of the species of plants and animals with which they are acquainted such a song being the expression of the life or soul of the species to which it pertains.”

He relays the song of the pasque flower as translated from the Dakota language:

“I wish to encourage the children of other flower nations

Which are now appearing over all the land;

So, while they waken from sleep and rise from the bosom

Of Mother Earth, I stand here, old and gray headed.”

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Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

~Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Educator, Northern Prairie Land Trust

Environmental Stewardship Begins with Heart

I think we all have ‘the’ story we can trace back through the foggy trail of memory to a collection of moments when we became forever bonded to wild places. Maybe it’s just my experiences, but those moments hover around the ‘unsupervised savagery’ end of the spectrum of childhood memories.  Foul smelling mud face paint.

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Like mother like son. Mud pit on National Mud Day      Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Running through the Platte River riparian zone like a NINJA! Dodging branches and hopping downed trees.  I was super human, I could talk to animals and move rocks with my Jedi mind.  My parents had no clue I would visit this place.

I wouldn’t be the same without those experiences and I still adventure like this.  Midnight forays at 10 below. Jumping the frozen creek, getting tangled in spent brome grass and running up the soybean field to catch the full moon rising over the hill. My heart is eight-years-old in those moments.

Your story may have had an adult to guide you or may include a sibling or neighbor.

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December sunrise tea-time contemplations. Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Fishing with your brother, or turning over decaying trees with mom to look at centipedes and rollie pollies.   Perhaps it was similar to mine, an escape, a place of solitude and imagination shared with no one.  Whatever the case, it seems many things have changed since our childhoods.  Those changes may be a topic for another post for today seems a day needing inspiration.  So I leave you with this little ditty from Rachel Carson’s, ‘The Sense of Wonder’.  An ode to the young hearts in our lives and in ourselves.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.  It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  If I had the influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.  Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge.  In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature-why, I don’t even know one bird from another!”

I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.  The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil.  Once the emotions have been aroused-a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love- then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.  It is more imiportant to pave the way for the child want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

Jamie Bachmann, Wildlife Education, Northern Prairies Land Trust

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Taking a float break to hear stillness. In Stanton County, Nebraska Photo Credit: Jamie Bachmann

Conserving Biodiversity Under Private Land Law

How do we explain the opposition to conservation easements? After all, isn’t an easement merely the expression of a private landowner’s intent as to how land will be used, no different from a decision to plow a field, dig a mine, build a house, hotel or airfield?

The answer is in the laws and customs that support private land ownership.  These land laws evolved over the last several centuries almost exclusively to encourage transformation of land into a human mold.  As Sax says: “A piece of iron becomes an anvil, a tree becomes lumber, and a forest becomes a farm.”  Traditional property law treats undeveloped land as inert and passive, waiting to be put to use; it considers the natural functions of the land, such as providing habitat for biodiversity, as expendable.  Through recent times, land law has been employed, essentially, to end the existence of natural systems.

Dirt road dissects private land in Stanton County, Nebraska. Image Credit: Jamie Bachmann

When  private landowners expand their intentions of how land should be used to include the ecological concept of protecting biodiversity, they move beyond the common interpretations of land use and law.  The ecological perspective views land as a system that performs valuable functions in its natural state, while the conventional perspective encourages the transformation of nature to achieve the goals of the Industrial Revolution.  Herein lies the source of the tension.

 

In the 21st Century, society requires a system of land laws that are equally attuned to protecting the remains of our biological heritage, restoring degraded waters and landscapes, and renewing forests and grasslands to play a positive role in controlling climate change.

Viewed this way, a conservation easement appears as a small but necessary step in the evolution of private land law. Just as land law evolved to support the Industrial Revolution, it now must evolve to support the new requirements of contemporary society.

JHD