Nancy GaarderOmaha World-Herald
Nebraskans have always considered the Sandhills one of the state’s jewels.
Now, a study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has highlighted the importance of this gem.
Work by UNL researchers Dirac Twidwell and Rheinhardt Scholtz concluded that the Sandhills are the largest untouched temperate grassland on Earth.
That probably comes as a surprise to some because the Sandhills aren’t well known outside of the state, Twidwell said.
“Although the Sandhills are recognized here, they have not gained the international recognition of other grasslands,” he said.
The duo’s research revealed that the Sandhills are among seven large-scale grasslands of any type that remain mostly untouched. Another is in the Wyoming Basin, two more in Asia, and one in Africa, South America, and Australia.
Of these, the Sandhills is the only region that does not have an internationally focused conservation strategy, he said. This may be because the region lies entirely within one state and country and does not overlap with borders requiring international cooperation.
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The Sandhills in northwest and north-central Nebraska cover about a quarter of the state and more than 90% of the land is privately owned.
One of the groups already working to protect the area is the rancher-led non-profit Sandhills Task Force. The organization’s goal is to promote profitable farming alongside conservation, said Shelly Kelly, executive director.
Kelly said the key to success in the Sandhills is collaboration between ranchers and conservation organizations.
“Because we are ranchers, we have trust and credibility,” she said. “We have built partnerships.”
His group and UNL researchers have identified the same major threat to the Sandhills: invasive eastern red cedars.
“It’s our number one threat,” Kelly said.
Seedy conifers, often planted as windbreaks, spread quickly. Eradicating them takes a major effort, year after year, Kelly said.
UNL research distinguishes between types of grassland-like regions based on climate and vegetation.
The Serengeti in Africa, for example, is bigger than the Sandhills, but it’s savannah, not grassland, Twidwell said. The Serengeti is naturally home to trees, but trees are not a natural part of the Sandhills landscape.
Likewise, there are shrubby desert grasslands that are more pristine than the Sandhills, but they are not found in a temperate climate, Twidwell said.