LINCOLN — A piece of Niobrara River woods and grassland is a step closer to becoming Nebraska's first forestry and wildlife management area.
State Game and Parks commissioners unanimously approved the acquisition of a small, heavily timbered ranch on the Niobrara west of Valentine. The 460-acre ranch in Cherry County would be actively managed as an outdoor laboratory to show ranchers ways to reduce the chances of wildfire destroying their operations and to manage land for cattle and wildlife.
“The area is unique,'' said Tim McCoy, deputy Game and Parks director.
The commission would purchase the tract from the willing seller for the appraised price. State law requires the commission to make annual payments to the county for the full amount of what a private landowner would pay in property taxes.
Fifty-nine percent of the purchase would be funded by federal forestry funds, 35 percent by a Nebraska Environmental Trust grant, 4 percent from a Game and Parks fund financed by hunters and 2 percent from the National Wild Turkey Federation.
The site would be known at Chat Canyon Wildlife Management Area. The tract is nine miles south of Nenzel and less than a mile north of McKelvie National Forest.
A Cherry County contingent that included county board member Jerry Adamson of Cody tried to argue against the deal, but Game and Parks Commission Chairman Norris Marshall of Kearney ruled them out of order because the issue wasn't being heard in a public hearing. The visitors later met with Jim Douglas, Game and Parks director, behind a closed door in his office.
State foresters say they plan to begin clearing trees as soon as the deal is closed.
The site is in a region that has been increasingly plagued by wildfires. Recent years of higher temperatures, intense drought, increased forest fuel loads and the spread of eastern red cedar have created an explosive potential for megafires in the Niobrara valley and other areas of Nebraska, foresters say.
Last year, nearly 1,600 wildfires burned more than 500,000 acres across Nebraska. Firefighting costs hit $12 million. Last July, three wildfires along the Niobrara east of Valentine burned more than 76,000 acres over 10 days.
The owner of the ranch is selling the property to see it protected from development and preserved in its natural state.
The parcel contains more than two miles of Niobrara frontage and straddles the river in places. The property is not adjacent to the Niobrara National Scenic River. The popular canoeing and tubing stretch of the Niobrara is about 35 miles downstream.