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The Common Ground between Grazing and Conservation

New Conservation Easement in Eastern Oregon Protects Zumwalt Prairie, Ranching Livelihoods

By:Tracy Robillard

Zumwalt Prairie - cows

Cows grazing in the Zumwalt Prairie. Photo by Julia Amato, The Nature Conservancy.

Zumwalt Prairie by Rick_McEwan_

Zumwalt Prairie by Rick: Zumwalt Prairie flowers.

June 28, 2017 - It is no secret there can be tension between conservation interests and cattle grazing, but the owners of the Lightning Creek Ranch in eastern Oregon have found some common ground.

Lightning Creek Ranch owners, the Probert family—led by Dan and Suzy Probert—have teamed up with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), The Nature Conservancy and The Climate Trust to ensure their 12,225-acre ranch will be managed to benefit both ranching livelihoods and the native habitat and wildlife it supports. The Proberts sold an agricultural conservation easement on their property prohibiting conversion out of native grassland. The property can still be used for livestock grazing that follows a grazing management plan. 

“Wallowa County is a very special and unique place, and I believe it is absolutely critical that we protect our resources for future generations,” said Dan Probert. “Because of this conservation easement, Lightning Creek Ranch will always remain a working ranch while also protecting some of the most beautiful and ecologically important lands in the country.”

Conservation easements protect land for future generations while allowing owners to retain certain property rights. Through an easement, landowners willingly sell or donate only those rights necessary to protect specific conservation values, such as fish and wildlife habitat.  Easements are individually tailored to meet a landowner's goals and the landscape’s needs. Because the land remains in private ownership, with the remainder of the rights intact, an agricultural easement property continues to provide economic benefits for the area in the form of jobs, economic production and property taxes.

“On large landscapes like Zumwalt Prairie, native species thrive with little disturbance, such as fire and grazing,” said Jeff Fields, Zumwalt project manager for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon. Just like fire, it is critical that grazing happens under the right timing and intensity, which is what we guide with our grazing management plans on these easements.”

In addition to helping conserve North America's largest remaining grassland of its type and supporting the local ranching community, this agricultural conservation easement prevents the Lightning Creek Ranch from any conversion for residential or commercial energy development or crops. Preventing these changes and maintaining the native grassland will keep an estimated 55,000 tons of carbon in the ground, a benefit that secured funding for this transaction from The Climate Trust.

“The environmental benefits to be gained from preserving native grasslands are vast, with impacts ranging from improved water quality and soil erosion prevention to the safeguarding of carbon stored in the ground,” said Mik McKee, land asset manager for The Climate Trust.

Much of the funding for this purchase—$1.3 million—was provided by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service through its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program – Agricultural Land Easements (ACEP-ALE). This program provides financial and technical assistance to provide long term conservation and protection of agricultural lands and their related benefits. Created in the 2014 Farm Bill, this is the first ACEP-ALE project to be completed in Oregon.

“The ACEP-ALE program is a critical tool in our toolbox to sustain pristine, working grasslands of special significance in the Zumwalt Prairie landscape while supporting the rural economy,” said NRCS Oregon State Conservationist Ron Alvarado. “The Lightning Creek Ranch ALE easement expands connectivity with other NRCS conservation programs in the Zumwalt Prairie, such as a multiyear, $3.1 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) project awarded this year, with The Nature Conservancy as the lead partner.

The RCPP funding will help private landowners maintain and improve soil heath through innovative on-farm conservation practices and permanent ALEs, ensuring productive agricultural lands are never converted to other uses.”