This land is ... whose land?

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August 1, 2011 - 7:00pm

The scenic Snake River runs through 126 miles of ranchland in the open sand hills of northern Nebraska. 3 miles of land along the river is up for sale and the state of Nebraska is trying to buy it. The purchase of this fragile natural resource has pried open a can worms: in what hands are natural resources best protected.

Landowner and retired surgeon Cleve Trimble navigates his 4-passenger ATV down a rain-washed sand road. He's descending into a canyon that looks more like the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, instead of the sand hills of Nebraska.



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Click here for a video produced by Clay Masters about the Snake River controversy.


Trimble and three other landowners are suing the Nebraska Environmental Trust to block a 2.4 million dollar grant that would help the state buy part of the Snake River including the state's largest waterfall. A private fishing club is working to buy a similar stretch downstream. Altogether the price tag 9 million dollars. The landowners suing? The river runs right through their properties.

In late May Trimble spoke in Omaha to members of the Nebraska chapter of Trout Unlimited, an international non-profit dedicated to the conservation of freshwater streams that are habitat for trout and other fish. The group is mostly divided on the potential state acquisition. But it has publically pledged Game and Parks its support; the state agency that would manage the land.

Trimble says he's spent millions of dollars protecting the fragile ecosystem. He wants it to stay quoting the tragedy of the commons, Trimble says if the land were public people would promote their own interest and ultimately deplete the shared limited resource. He says he doesn't limit access to his land as long as those using it follow a few rules.

"For a public agency to say that it's a shame that we aren't letting anyone else in is a serious misstatement," said Trimble at the meeting.

"I think that could be interpreted in several ways though," said Dave Jacobs, president of the Nebraska Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "It's not simply that the landowners aren't allowing access. It's the fact that the average Joe - the guy who just got transferred to Offutt Air Force base who wants to take his kid trout fishing has absolutely no idea how to find you or anything else to take his kid trout fishing."

The Bigger Question

But let's put the Snake River on the backburner for a moment. All of this gets at a bigger question how should natural resources be preserved? Through private or public hands?

Jim McElfish He says since the 1890s the history of land conservation in the U.S. has relied on public landownership. But the landscape is diversifying.

"In current times it's actually pretty typical for land conservation to be done by public acquisitions outright," said Jim McElfish, senior attorney with the Environmental Law Institute "There are also easements on nearby lands and then private organizations undertaking conservation on additional lands, so you end up with quilt or patchwork with all these groups working on conservation."

Many times it boils down to money. Anthony Shutz is an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska and specializes in Agricultural Environmental Law. He breaks it down like this:

"If we're providing public benefits that are driven by larger environmental concerns we ought to all share that particular cost," said Anthony Shutz, an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and specializes in Agricultural Environmental Law. "And we perhaps can't trust the private sector to produce that kind of thing on its own on the other hand if consumers and voters are willing to pay for access to pristine places and good conservation then perhaps private sector would produce it."

But what if the public sector can't afford to maintain the property? That's some of the argument coming up in the Snake River case.

Who can afford it?

Opponents to public ownership point to the closure of Game and Parks district offices, a lifted ban on alcohol in state parks and having one conservation officer in a large swath of the region.

But Mark Brohman, executive director for the Nebraska Environmental Trust, explains it this way.

"It's very difficult for people to understand, the Game and Parks commission has a couple different divisions and the parks division is completely separate from the wildlife division and it is the wildlife division looking at this property," said Brohman. "They would set it up as a wildlife management area and they would be paying taxes, it came down to a lot of people saying game and parks is giving away land why would they want to acquire more land? That's the parks division, the parks division is underfunded."

Brohman says the land will land will be properly staffed and maintained though, as of now, there is no budget. While the landowners' lawsuit works its way through the courts, here at Snake River falls all is peaceful -nobody's arguing this isn't worth preserving, it's just who can handle the job.

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