Dating Sites for Prairies?

One of the biggest, but rarely talked about threats to prairie conservation comes during transitions of land ownership. I’m frequently approached by people who have poured their heart and soul into restoring and/or managing a nice parcel of land and are wrestling with how to make sure their investment isn’t squandered after they’re gone. I think about the same issue with my own family prairie, though I hope I have many decades before the issue becomes urgent.

Our family prairie stayed in the family after my grandparents died because their kids (my dad and his sisters) made it a priority and I was willing and able to take it over its stewardship. I don’t know if any of my kids or their kids will be interested or able to take it when it’s time. That’s definitely a big worry of mine, and many other landowners have similar worries.

Conservation easements are a tool that can provide some help, and they are absolutely valuable in landscapes where prairies are rapidly being turned into crop land. However, easements don’t address all threats and come with a number of complications and disadvantages. If you’re not familiar with conservation easements, they are essentially a legal agreement made between a landowner and a land trust organization in which the landowner gives or sells certain land rights to the land trust. A landowner might agree, for example, not to ever construct a building on the site, till the land for crops, or do other things that would destroy the prairie or threaten the conservation value of the property. That agreement becomes legally binding and is attached to the deed so that all future landowners have to abide by the same restrictions (for the length of the easement, which is often perpetual). Typically, those restrictions are difficult, if not impossible, to alter once everything has been signed.

Easements can help eliminate some clear threats to prairies such as housing development or tillage, but easements are not well-designed to ensure that current or future landowners control invasive plants or otherwise manage the site to benefit plant diversity or habitat quality. A prairie destroyed by chronic overgrazing or invasive trees is just as destroyed as it would be by conversion to a soybean field, but most easements can’t protect against those first two threats.

It’s very difficult to use any kind of legal contract to dictate how a prairie should be managed for the long-term. Challenges to prairies change over time, as do our best ideas about how to address them. Easements, however, are static and inflexible. We need a better option.

A conservation easement could prevent a house from being built on this prairie but can’t force a future landowner to suppress invasive plants or prevent them from managing in a way that damages its biodiversity.

The crux of this issue is that every landowner wants to know that the next landowner will do their best to take care of the property. Sometimes, that assurance comes because land is transferred to a family member who has already invested time, energy and passion into the property. Often, however, family members are uninterested or unable to own or manage the land, so the current owner has to look elsewhere.

What if there was a kind of online dating site for prairie owners and conservation-minded people looking to purchase a prairie? There are myriad ways this could be handled, but the basic idea is that someone looking for a successor could post information about their prairie and the kinds of work they’ve invested in it. Meanwhile, potential buyers could post a profile of themselves that outlines their interest and (potentially) expertise in prairie ownership and conservation. If two people see each other as potential partners, they could set up ways to further explore that relationship.

There are lots of ways to help this idea succeed, including training and certification programs for prospective buyers, educational and financial assistance for both current and future owners, and many others. Clearly, there are also many ways this model could fail, but if even if it only works in some cases, it seems a lot better than our current lack of options. If every passionate prairie owner passes their site on to another passionate prairie owner, it creates a self-perpetuating chain of land protection based on relationships and trust. The model could work equally well for both tiny prairies in the eastern tallgrass prairie and large ranches in the west.

This piece of Sandhills prairie is owned by The Nature Conservancy, and that should keep it conserved. However, TNC and other conservation organizations can and should own a limited amount of land. Many private landowners do a terrific job of prairie conservation and just need help finding someone who will take on that mantle when they’re done.

Legally-binding land protection strategies are typically expensive and limited in scope and effectiveness. Conservation organizations can only buy and manage so many parcels of land, and too much conservation and/or government ownership creates significant social friction in some landscapes. Easements can protect against some threats, but not others, and placing long-term or permanent restrictions on land isn’t a desired solution for many landowners.

Simply helping landowners find appropriate successors for their land seems like a potentially valuable addition to the currently available options. Whether that comes in the form of an online dating-style website or something completely different, I love the idea of helping people find someone they can trust to carry on a conservation legacy. I don’t love it enough to set something up myself, because that kind of thing is not my strength. However, I’d sure be happy if someone else wanted to step up and do it! (Or let me know if something like this already exists – I can’t be the only one thinking along these lines.)

This entry was posted in General and tagged , , , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

20 thoughts on “Dating Sites for Prairies?

  1. Thanks Chris! I am struggling with this very issue on my own small 40-acre farm in Illinois, where I have done both some woodland and prairie restoration. With no kids, searching for a proper “heir” who will not just sell or develop it is not easy. Thanks again for your thoughts and bringing this issue lo light.

    • Paul- i’m dealing with the same issue. I’d rather give it to someone interested in Conservation that sell it to corn & beans.

  2. Chris, Your post is very interesting. Several years ago I became aware of some property in north central Nebraska that had some rare plants on it. And then I was advised some time later, that it was up for sale. I was able to contact someone who lived in the area to verify it and get a phone number or other way to contact the realtor or land owner. I think that my contacting the landowner with my interest in the land may have been a mistake. Then things moved fairly fast and it was sold – and probably for a use that would not be for the benefit of the plants. I also contacted some conservation groups – one was supportive but the decisions already had been made and that was that. Maybe some of your colleagues may be familiar with the property and what happened.

    There are some other properties in central Nebraska that I am also concerned about. They are a bit too distant from me for me to be aware of any potential changes in their status. I do have a contact reasonably close for one but the other I do not – and I suppose there are others that I am not aware of. It would be great if there were a network of people and organizations that would be able to keep them in their native state.

    • I guess I don’t see conservation easements and a land “dating service” to be mutually exclusive ideas. Folks who love prairie will be ok buying a prairie bound by an easement. Connecting buyers and sellers with that interest makes sense. Of course an easement wouldn’t necessarily prevent a future landowner from not caring for the land, but not putting an easement wouldn’t guarantee that either. My feeling is that we have enough land under cultivation. What small amounts are encumbered by easements doesn’t make a dent in the amount of agricultural production here, if that is the prevailing argument against. At worst, such land could eventually become open space, which in ag-intensive areas is desperately needed for recreation and biodiversity.

  3. What a great idea and I’d even like to see it drilled down to small home sites. I only have an acre of land, part of which contains lawn and house. But I’ve worked my behind off trying to keep the invasives at bay. There were a couple other homes in my neighborhood about 18 years ago that were also owned by conservation minded folks. But they moved and now those properties are nothing but a tangle of buckthorn and honeysuckle. All that work for nothing. I often think I’m wasting my time and energy because mine home will look that that too when I’m gone.

    • Yep, I planted a prairie garden and I thought the next buyers, who worked for the National Park Service, would understand it’s significance. Nope. It was too much work to maintain, evidently. They dug it up and replaced it with sod. SAD!

  4. A stellar idea. A “matching” forum/platform.
    Sometime covenants can be placed on a property. It would be better to outline The Vision in a dynamic working document and to try to find a person/persons who “fit”. Nothing lasts forever
    but there are plenty of good stewards out there.
    Excellent concept Chris!

  5. I’m just about the retirement age (59) and would like to purchase land and try to restore while I can, but also worry that it would all be for naught. It would be nice to find a place next to an already existing prairie/woodlands site that can be given over once I’m done. I’m in Illinois. This is a terrific idea.

    • That is the approach I would take too. What an awesome legacy! If you can manage it and are lucky, you might find someplace that connects two other areas. Watercourses are also hotspots for diversity and natural wildlife corridors.

  6. I think this is a great idea and worth pursuing perhaps via the current land trust organizations. I look forward to hearing that it has already been organized somewhere!

  7. We had this issue when we recently sold our house and land, which included 6 acres of diverse planted prairie. I had worked on the site for over 20 years, and wanted to see it kept as prairie. But we needed to sell. I created a photo booklet which I called “Come Home to Nature”, describing various plants, birds and insects we had observed. We considered a restrictive easement, but found that would limit the market too much. The photo booklet did help. We ended up selling to a young couple who are very interested in maintaining the prairie and woodland. They have agreed to have me come back and teach them about the plants and how to manage it. They also say they will allow me to come harvest seed and native plants that volunteer out of place (in the lawn, on trails, in formal gardens) for use in local parks.
    I don’t have legal restrictions, and cannot be absolutely sure, but I feel good about the prospects.

    It might have been helpful to have such a ‘dating’ / match making service.

  8. MPLC (married prairie loving couple) with infant seeks SPH (sweet prairie habitat) of around 40 acres. We love long walks at sunset though the bramble and listening to crickets, birds, and owls nabbing voles. Long term commitment only with possibility of eternal connection. Not looking for a one night stand of corn, just the real thing while we’re still youngish.

  9. I don’t have a prairie but my backyard and side areas constitute about 4k square ft. of wild & native plants, shrubs & trees. I’ve been at it about 5 yrs and hope to completed my vision over the next 3 yrs. I have a significant amount of toil and money into naturalizing the grass areas. I have multiple birds now that make my yard their pit stop during migration. I’ve attracted Baltimore Orioles and Hummingbirds to the area and about 9 other additional species on a regular basis. This also includes fostering Monarch butterflies, etc. I was fortunate to have two neighbors who also had extensive wild & native yards. However, one native gardner succumb to cancer and the other to old age. I slowly watch the properties erode as the new caretakers had no interest in taking care of the property.

    I know one thing, birds and such count on is a place remaining the same. The Sandhill Cranes have been coming to the Nebraska sandhills for thousands of years. Baby animals, birds and butterflies have the innate knowledge of where they were born. It’s part of how they survive.

    We live in a day and age where people don’t stay in the same place their whole life. Americans move on average 11.7 times after turning 18 yrs of age. Furthermore, caring for native habitat is a state of mind and being. Most people don’t have the intestinal fortitude to nurture mother earth.

    I just got thru addressing a similar subject matter with my only son. I found out he doesn’t plan to keep my art collection but rather he’s going to sell it all off. I was devastated. I’m still devastated. I’m not sure there is an answer to the problem.

  10. Hey Chris! Have you checked in with Wyatt Fraas at the Center for Rural Affairs? They have had programs to link farmer/rancher sellers/buyers for several years. I think they may currently be transitioning from one land link type program into another. If/when you ID someone wth the time and energy to pursue your vision for conservation minded transfer of prairie ownership, you might suggest they give Wyatt a call to network.

  11. Pingback: Dating Sites for Prairies? — The Prairie Ecologist – GrowLifely


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