Homer Buell is like the vast majority of Sandhills ranchers I know. He and the other members of Buell family of Rose have an abiding love of ranching and cattle and the grass, soil, water and wildlife resources they've protected through the generations.
I've been to the Shovel Dot Ranch and seen the grazing management practices implemented by Homer and his family, including wife, Darla, and son, Chad. I saw, too, when the family a year ago was selected as Nebraska's winner in the annual Leopold Conservation Awards program. This is an outstanding conservation awards program, begun by the Wisconsin-based Sand County Foundation, honoring stewardship-minded landowners in eight states. In Nebraska, it has many partnering groups, including the Nebraska Cattlemen.
The Buells were in Lincoln last month along with the other 2012 Leopold Conservation Award winners, from California, Colorado, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Many of those recognized each year are ranch families, but dairy operations and private land preservation/wildlife operations also have been recognized.
It was amazing to hear the stories of each state winner, and the message that came through in each case was this: love of the land, wildlife, independence and their way of life. It's a tradition carried on from generation to generation in each family.
I don't necessarily believe that ranchers have a stronger stewardship ethic than crop producers have. That would be a much too broad statement. But what I've seen through my years as editor and heard from the "Innovations on the Land" gathering in Lincoln are the challenges these livestock operations face. The rangeland resource, water availability or lack thereof, invasive plant species, terrain and weather differ in each situation. They have to be adaptable in the face of those challenges, most often coming up their own remedies for such things as wind erosion, water shortages and drought.
I've witnessed multi-generation families who raise crops, and most do so with pride and love of the land. I've also seen, primarily in recent years, conservation reserve land returned to crops that should have stayed in grass and native pastures torn up for more corn acres. I see center pivots that can barely negotiate the steep hills in these cases and the soil runoff at the end of the field, sometimes harming neighbors.
There seems to be more of an urgency to protect sometimes fragile rangeland. The 2012 winner from South Dakota—rancher Todd Mortenson—said this: "Ranching is about the love of the land. It's not about what can I do to make the most money. It's about what I can do to sustain my livelihood out here and have something to pass on to my children."
One key aspect of the aforementioned awards program is the emphasis on conservation on private, working lands. The award is named for Aldo Leopold, the well-known author, naturalist and conservation promoter. He recognized that it requires private landowners, not government, to apply necessary conservation on the land.
In his presentation, Buell credited government partners for assisting the family with developing stewardship practices, including USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-sharing programs for watering systems. But he says it must be private landowners who take the initiative and get the job done, he said.
Buell supported that believe with another Aldo Leopold quote, "Conservation planning is not primarily a matter of laws, appropriations or administrative devices, but rather of modifying land use. . .hence, execution of a plan rests largely with landowners, rather than the government. The function of government is to teach, lead and encourage."
Well said by both of them.