Protecting Nebraska Sandhills

Written by Sarah Sortum
Edits by Alison M Jones, NWNL Director
Photos © Sarah Sortum, unless otherwise noted

Sarah (Switzer) Sortum is a rancher and eco-tourism provider in the Nebraska Sandhills where she is fulfilling her childhood dream of living on the family ranch. She is a Nebraska Tourism Commissioner; founding member of the Great Plains Eco-tourism Coalition; and partner of the Platte Basin Timelapse Project.

Jones_170325_NE_3280.jpgSwitzer Ranch windmill. Photo by Alison M Jones, 2017

INTRO FROM NWNL: Part of the NWNL focus in the vast Mississippi River Basin included a 2017 visit to Nebraska’s Switzer Ranch.  Of special interest in the Sandhills region is its prairie ecosystem and mating grassland birds, atop and dependent on the Ogallala Aquifer.  NWNL was impressed by the Switzer and Sortum families’ stewardship. In this blog, Sarah Sortum (daughter of Bruce Switzer) highlights how utilizing natural resources helps sustain the Sandhills’ fragile water ecosystems.

Our family’s story in the Nebraska Sandhills began in 1904. My great-grandfather utilized the Homestead and Kincaid Acts to settle in the Platte River Basin’s Loup County.  Like most, his farm started small and grew into a traditional cow/calf operation.  Because the Sandhills soil is sandy, as the name implies, income here comes mostly from grazing on native grasses. The ranch – and Gracie Creek which runs through it – provided for three families – until about 20 years ago.

My older brother, Adam, and I grew up witnessing economic strains our parents endured as our Switzer Ranch struggled to support just one family.  After high school my brother and I left the ranch, encouraged by our parents, in search of that so-called “better life” we kept hearing about.

Grandpa Bruce and EmmettBruce Switzer and grandson Emmett. Photo by Tom Mangelsen.

Today, thankfully, we once again have three family units on the ranch: that of my parents, my brother and me. The secret for this success on the ranch (and the REAL “better life”) was diversification and conservation.

A major diversification for Switzer Ranch was creating nature-based tourism in 2001. Our Calamus Outfitters business runs alongside the ranching operation, generating much-needed extra revenue from the same acres via lodging, river trips, jeep safari tours, birdwatching and other specialty events.

With diversification, we now view our resources differently. Grass and water are still of utmost importance to our ranch. Yet now we see that offering opportunities to experience wildlife, scenery and our natural resources is an added value worth thoughtful planning and management. In 2010 our ranch, part of the Greater Gracie Creek Area, was the first privately-owned land in Nebraska to be named an “Important Bird by Audubon Nebraska.” This helped raise our wildlife management to the next level.

IMG_9722 Plant diversity offers habitat and support to pollinators, grassland birds and many Switzer Ranch wildlife species. Photo by Sarah Sortum.

Then my father and I joined a World Wildlife Fund study tour to Namibia.  The goal of the trip was to see how Africa’s market-based conservation promotes rural development. We learned that: 1) together, the private sector, government and NGO’s can quickly accomplish great things, 2) eco-tourism can be a tool for both conservation and rural development, 3) a financial incentive is critical to facilitating widespread change, and 4) land use does not have to dramatically change to allow substantial diversification.

On return, we plugged these lessons into our own operation and saw how eco-tourism encourages better management. Like it or not, I believe that tourism automatically puts more value on a resource; and when something has value, you manage for it. In short – if it pays, it stays. Tourism has also encouraged us to continue our own education and monitoring in order to provide visitors with full narratives and professional interpretations of their experiences.

Perhaps the greatest benefit is the chance to promote better stewardship of private lands When people experience the quality of our natural resources with all five senses, many pre-conceived notions regarding ranchers and grazing are dashed.  After all, our management revolves around the key ecological factors that shaped the Great Plains: grazing and fire.

IMG_20140708_144211489Switzer Ranch guests enjoy the spring-fed Calamus River. Photo by Calamus Outfitters.

After our Namibia trip, we talked to our neighbors about the possibilities a larger landscape effect – and the Gracie Creek Landowners group was formed. This gave individual landowners “umbrella goals” for creating bio-diversity and sustainability. Recognizing Gracie Creek as a shared resource, each operation now autonomously uses hydrologic maintenance to restore and manage grassland bird habitat. To meet our goals as landowners, we focus on 3 species: the greater prairie-chicken, the sharp-tailed grouse and the federally-endangered blowout penstemon, a plant endemic to the Sandhills.

We now use deferred and prescribed grazing to encourage warm-season perennials and we allow fuel build-up for prescribed burns. Benefits of prescribed burns, coordinated with post-burn grazing, improve our water resources, stream-bank stabilization, invasive tree removal, penstemon plantings, range monitoring, and monitoring of resident prairie grouse via annual counts.  We intend to use the prairie grouse as an indicator of the system’s functions and health by interpreting population trends within the context of management practices.

Another important tool for us in recent years has been partnering with the Platte Basin Timelapse (PBT). This project uses on-site cameras to capture the story of water throughout the Platte Basin. Its images, time-lapses and videos are archived and used for research and education. Our PBT partnership allows us to help facilitate their education program on the hydrology and ecology of the Sandhills.

By addressing needs of grassland birds, we’ve created a dynamic system supporting life stages of multiple species. Although having different stages of range conditions rubbing shoulders may not create the perfect “calendar picture” prairie, our goal is a system that sustains a wide array of species.

Jones_170325_NE_3351.jpgPicnic on Gracie Creek at Switzer Ranch. Photo by Alison M Jones, 2017

Our aim is to protect prairie grouse nesting zones with a 1.5 to 2-mile radius around known breeding “leks” offering enough “cover” (usually leftover structural vegetation from the previous year). In that radius there must be pollinator habitat and enough forbs to attract insects for the baby chicks’ diet. There must be vegetation that chicks can easily travel through, but that also protects them from weather and predators. Today we no longer manage for one specific goal because we recognize having many niches and working parts creates a more meaningful whole.

We are thankful for many, many things, including the prairie grouse with whom we share our home. These little birds have helped our family stay on this land together. In celebration, we founded our annual Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival in 2012, inviting visitors to experience these amazing birds with us. The festival promotes grasslands education, conservation and appreciation.  We believe this is an important and beneficial way for land managers and conservation folks to connect.  Oh, and we also have a ton of fun!!

Success means something different to everyone. For us it is continuing our ranching heritage; protecting species of concern; and using conservation to work for us. Our success is also measured by family.  Being able to raise our children on this ranch, instilling progressive stewardship values, and using nature as a teacher has become our standard.  Today, we have five kids running around that want to grow up to be just like grandpa — and we think that’s just alright too.

IMG_6181 Sarah Sortum, photo by Michael Forsberg

[For further visuals of the Platte River Basin, there is a 4-min time-lapse trailer used for the PBT film, “Follow the Water.”]

For more information:
www.calamusoutfitters.com
www.nebraskaprairiechickens.com
www.plattebasintimelapse.com

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