Leopold Award: A Tribute To Private Farm Land Stewards

Nebraska Notebook

In late April, I attended a press conference announcing the 2013 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award winners—the Beel Ranch family of Johnstown.

Published on: May 2, 2013

I cover and report on numerous agriculture and natural resources awards given out each year in Nebraska, and all are well deserved. Commodity groups present them to members active in their associations, or to those who win yield or production contests. Farm organizations recognize people who contribute to Nebraska agriculture in general.

One award that I especially appreciate is the Leopold Conservation Award. Nebraska Cattleman and Cargill partner with the Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation to extend the award annually. The Sand County Foundation partners with groups in eight states to award families for voluntarily implementing conservation on their land to protect natural resources. (By the way, 50-plus winners of the Leopold Conservation Award from those eight states will come to Nebraska July 25-26 to exchange ideas and issues related to conservation). 

Leopold Award: A Tribute To Private Land Stewards
Leopold Award: A Tribute To Private Land Stewards

In late April, I attended a press conference announcing the 2013 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award winners—the Beel Ranch family of Johnstown. The setting was the governor's press room in the Capitol and it was barely large enough for award sponsors, guests and the Beel family, including more than a dozen family members from three generations.

The ranch is owned and operated by brothers Frank, Henry and Adam and their wives Jennifer, Mary, and Jenny, respectively.

Their eight children were in their Sunday best at the award presentation and nearly stole the show.

This particular award seems to always bring out the unsung treasures of the state's cattle industry. The conservation ethic of these ranch families is always quite evident.

The Beels aren't the first Nebraska Leopold Conservation winners to come from the state's Sandhills, where multi-generation families take great pride in their stewardship of grass, soil, water and wildlife resources in this unique, native grasslands region. Winners also have come from Lancaster County and Pawnee counties.

Frank, Henry and Adam Beel, the third generation on their 22,000-acre cattle operation, were proud but modest winners. Speaking for the family, Frank made a point to credit God as the real owner of their ranch and its resources. "It is not our land, but God's, so we must take care of it."

There are many examples of land and water stewards—crop and livestock producers both--across Nebraska. We frequently write about them and their commitment to protecting their resources. They are rightly proud of their work in producing crops and livestock and practicing stewardship at the same time.

But when it comes to the Nebraska Sandhills and its fragile ecosystem, it's hard to top the commitment of that region's ranchers. At times, I feel crop producers could learn something from Sandhills ranchers about stewardship.

This award is special, too, because it is named after Aldo Leopold, who was a professor, natural resource administrator, ranger, scientist and farmer. He also authored the well-known book, A Sand County Almanac. Land, in Leopold's view, is not a commodity, but a resource to be nurtured all generations. He sought an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage.

While he pushed vigorously for landowner to be land stewards, he recognized that regulation was not the best approach. Education and incentives are necessary for private lands conservation. The award recognizes achievements in voluntary conservation by private landowners.

Most agricultural lands, thankfully, are privately owned, and that's more true in Nebraska than in most western states. Ninety-seven percent of the state's land base is privately owned, so it's private landowners and their work that the Leopold Conservation Award recognizes.

And the Beel Ranch is a fitting example of this stewardship.