"The most endangered species in South Dakota these days is a young rancher," Jim Faulstich told me as we sat in the barn of his ranch in central South Dakota. "As we lose the grasslands, we also lose the wildlife habitat and the hunting tradition that is a vital part of our heritage."
With 6,000 acres of native grasslands and wetlands rich with pheasants, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, partridge, ducks, antelope, and whitetail and mule deer, Faulstich's Daybreak Ranch is a special place for both wildlife and hunters.
As his father before him did, Jim runs 500 head of cattle on the ranch and welcomes 100 sportsmen each year to enjoy the abundant wildlife and beauty of the land. Someday, he hopes to pass the ranch down to his son-in-law, Adam, and his grandson, Caleb. But he's worried. Every year, 50,000 acres of grassland are plowed under in South Dakota.
I sat down with Jim on a windswept day recently to talk about the future of ranches like his and what can be done to preserve South Dakota's ranching heritage and the native grasslands that are vital habitat to both game and non-game species.
Jim already has much of his land under easements, and together that day, we signed an agreement to have U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists work hand-in-hand with him to better manage his grasslands both for wildlife and cattle, including providing fencing to make it easier to rotate grazing areas.
I was visiting South Dakota as part of the America's Great Outdoors Initiative unveiled last year by President Obama. Under the initiative, we are seeking to establish a 21st century conservation ethic and to reconnect Americans to the outdoors through recreational activities such as fishing and hunting.
One of our primary goals is to conserve the working landscapes of rural America -- places like Daybreak Ranch.
Along these lines, Jim and I talked about a new proposal to use proceeds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund and matching private contributions -- Ducks Unlimited has pledged up to $50 million -- to work with willing ranchers to put conservation easements in place on up to 1.9 million acres of key waterfowl producing areas in the Dakotas, thereby establishing what will be the Dakota Grasslands Conservation Area.
Unlike the traditional national wildlife refuges that dot the "prairie pothole" region, this new conservation area would remain in private ownership. Ranchers would continue to graze their cattle. The income from the easements would make it possible for them -- and their children -- to continue ranching while making sure the grasslands remain grasslands.
Earlier this year, for example, I visited Kansas to announce the establishment of the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area, which will conserve up to 1.1 million acres of tallgrass prairie habitat through voluntary perpetual easements. These easements will protect habitat for more than 100 species of grassland birds and 500 plant species, and ensure the region's sustainable ranching culture will endure.
Across the continent, just north of the Everglades in Florida, ranchers also are using this model to protect their way of life -- and the embattled "River of Grass" ecosystem --from the encroachment of subdivisions and condominiums.
"We could see what was happening to our state," said sixth-generation rancher, Cary Lightsey, who already has 14,000 acres of conservation easements on his land. "We were running out of green space and we were at risk of losing our heritage."
Lightsey is joining other ranchers to support the new Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. The initiative primarily will use easements to conserve approximately 150,000 acres of vital habitat, improve water quality in the headquarters of the Everglades, and ensure that rural working landscapes remain a vital part of Florida's economy.
Under the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, we are working with landowners in many other places on similar proposals that would replicate the model.
During the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s when over-plowing and poor agricultural practices on the Great Plains led to an ecological catastrophe, President Franklin said, "Man and nature must work hand-in-hand -- the throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men."
The America's Great Outdoors initiative recognizes the balance that must be maintained on our working landscapes.
Sitting in a South Dakota barn with Jim Faulstich, I couldn't help but be optimistic. We will save places like Daybreak Ranch for future generations. We will conserve the last remaining native grasslands. We will maintain the balance of nature for people and wildlife alike.
_ Click here to read Secretary Salazar's bio. Click here for more information on the America's Great Outdoors Initiative._