This land is ... whose land?
The scenic Snake River runs through 126 miles of ranchland in the open sand hills of northern Nebraska.
But all is not calm along the river.
Four landowners are suing the Nebraska Environmental Trust to block a $2.4 million grant that would help the state buy part of the Snake River, including the state’s largest waterfall.
The problem? The river runs right through their properties — and they don’t think it’s in the public best interest for the land to be owned by the state. They also are concerned that a private fishing club is working to buy another stretch of land downstream.
Referencing biologist Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” landowner Cleve Trimble argues that if the land were public, people would promote their own interest and ultimately deplete the shared limited resource.
But others say the public should have greater access to natural resources like the Snake River.
Trimble said he’s spent millions of dollars protecting the fragile ecosystem.
Earlier this year, he spoke at an Omaha meeting 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 retired surgeon said he doesn’t limit access to his 1,000 acres as long as people 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,” Trimble said at the meeting.
But Dave Jacobs, president of the Nebraska Chapter of Trout Unlimited, said the issue is not simply about landowners 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,” he said.
Along the Snake River
Trout Unlimited chapter members were divided on the potential state acquisition, but the group has publically pledged support to Nebraska Game and Parks, the state agency that would manage the land.
The public vs. private land issue is becoming a bigger concern, said Jim McElfish, senior attorney with the Environmental Law Institute.
Although land conservation in the U.S. has relied on public landownership since the 1890s, the landscape is diversifying, he said.
“In current times it’s actually pretty typical for land conservation to be done by public acquisitions outright,” McElfish said. “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, an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska, 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. 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 the 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. 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, said Game and Parks’ wildlife division is separate from the underfunded parks division.
“They would set (Snake River land) up as a wildlife management area and they would be paying taxes,” Brohman said.
He said the land would be properly staffed and maintained though, as of now, there is no budget.
A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for early August.