Sandhill residents Tanya Storer, at left, and Sherry Vinton.
Photo by George Lauby
This map of Cherry County shows the amount of land owned by Ted Turner, the government and the Nature Conservancy. The land numbered with a “2” is owned by a land investor.
Photo by Terri Davis graphic
Cherry County is large enough that if it were placed in the southeast or the southwest corners of Nebraska, as on the map above, it would encompass several counties.
Ted Turner and the government have Sandhills natives concerned about the future.
The only kind of equality that really matters is being equal to the occasion.
So goes a cowboy saying.
In the Nebraska Sandhills, which is the heart of Nebraska's red meat economy, ranchers are fighting to be equal to world.
They've had lots of practice, over many generations.
A storm can isolate them for days, so they park a motor vehicle miles from the ranch alongside a good road, in case the ranch is snowed under.
They store up resolve when the price of cattle dips and the cost of supplies soar. Since they don't establish the price of either, they take what they can get, pay what they have to, and watch for opportunities.
That is that historic standard operating procedure on Nebraska’s ranches, but another concern has arrived, as big as the world and cattle prices -- rapidly consolidating tracts of land.
Major Cherry County landowners (Map Key)
1. Ted Turner
1A. Ted Turner, formerly McMurty Ranch
2. Barta Cattle Company
3. Nature Conservancy
4. McKelvie National Forest
5. State of Nebraska
6. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge
7. Ft. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
In vast Cherry County, Ted Turner has native ranchers wondering if they have a future.
Turner recently paid a cool $10 million to buy 26,000 acres -- a ranch the equivalent of about 40 square miles. He bought it at the largest ranchland auction ever held in Cherry County.
The ranch had been owned by the McMurtry family. It was founded nearly 100 years ago, in 1908. But it is a family's ranch no longer. It is now just one division of 2 million acres of Turner's ranches around the United States.
Cherry County is far and away the largest county in Nebraska, covering nearly 6,000 square miles.
The next largest Nebraska counties are less than half that size. Custer and Lincoln each have about 2,500 square miles.
If Cherry County were in the southeast corner of Nebraska, it would contain the cities of Lincoln, Plattsmouth, York, Beatrice, Seward, Crete as well as the farms and towns in between.
If Cherry County were in the southwest corner of the state, it would reach from Gothenburg to the Kansas border and west to Colorado.
To sum up the totals: Ted Turner now owns 1/20th of Cherry County, plus much more in other counties, states and nations. But, if one counts only Turner's Cherry County land, he owns the equivalent of Douglas County, the seat of Omaha.
It is foreseeable that Turner will buy more land. He has the wealth -- a net worth of $4.8 billion. He has the attitude. He launched a television news station and built it into the international Cable News Network.
Even though he has yet to make any profits on the animals, Turner raises thousands of bison -- animals that freely roamed North America before the people of Nebraska began to settle more than 150 years ago.
There is an equivalent amount of concern about another big Cherry County landowner -- the federal government, which has nearly as much land in Cherry County as Turner
The federal government reserves the McKelvie National Forest; Merritt Reservoir; the Ft. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge and the Valentine National Wildlife Reserve.
The state of Nebraska owns more land. So does the Nature Conservancy.
If the government’s and conservancy’s land are added together, the areas exceed Turner's. Together the government and Turner account for more than 11 percent of Cherry County.
If Turner buys more ranches, or if a proposed national park develops near the Niobrara River, the total will increase.
More land could be removed from private owners in big chunks. One big ranch sits amidst the Turner and the federal land, consisting of more than 60,000 acres. It's foreseeable it will be for sale one day soon.
"We are looking at the heart of Cherry County," rancher Tanya Storer said. "We can look at the facts, and if we don't add them up, we are in denial -- denying the possibilities."
Beautiful women, big message
The facts suggest that ranchers could be up against the world.
Storer ranches with husband Eric in Cherry County. Her ancestors go back six generations. Like many Sandhills families, her forebearers were among the first Nebraska settlers. There's grit in her eyes, as the saying goes.
When interviewed, she interrupted the phone call to talk to an employee about repairing an autogate, fieldwork and irrigation. She stopped another time to give strict instructions to one of her three children.
For the last two years, she and neighboring ranch wife Sherry Vinton have been painting the broad land use picture for others. The first discussion was with the Cherry County Commissioners. Since then they have gone wherever they are invited -- to other county boards, to civic groups and organizations.
They lay out a map of all the landowners in the county. They describe Turner's connections to the United Nations and talk about international land use agreements.
The news tends to quiet the crowd.
"People get it," she said. "But at first, we saw a lot of glazed eyes looking back at us. And, those who understood had a 'you just ran over my dog' look."
But the atmosphere is getting lighter because people are getting involved. In late June, the two hosted a seminar in Valentine, focusing on ways to legally protect private property rights by working with county government.
It was fun, Storer said.
"People left with smile. They were excited. They had something to do about the situation, not just commiserate about it," she said.
She said federal laws generally require the federal government to coordinate with county governments, which is an encouraging sign.
"Our primary concern is the loss of property rights and less production of the land," she said.
At the same time, the likelihood grows greater that the wealthy -- including international corporations -- will buy up land, leading to a privileged class, a master-serf relationship between landowners and the workers in food production.
That flies in the face of American ideals of individual liberty and opportunity, the core values that inspired the settlers.
"I am becoming more aware every day how 'foundational' private property rights are," Storer said. "The U.S. has made more progress in 200 years than had been made in that time period in history, because we had opportunities and liberty to pursue them. I'm concerned that programs and agendas now seek to prohibit free enterprise from developing our resources."
"Where does that leave us as a nation, when we discourage productivity with over-regulation, red tape and free trade policies?" she asked. "Don't start me talking about trade policies that leave us indebted and handcuffed by other nations."
Land consolidation has increased during the last 20-50 years, as farm and ranch profits decreased and regulations increased, and "here we are today, with decreased productivity," she said.
"It is happening. It is not a theory," she said. "Our system is nearing the point of socialism; despite lots of history that shows socialistic systems fail. That’s why I have a fire in my belly."
Land consolidation is "slow, subtle, incremental, which makes it harder to detect and easier to accept," she said. "It's perhaps being expedited now, in the interests of 'the common good'. Not that we disregard our fellow man," she said, citing the brandings that ranchers join together to do each year, "but you can't regulate that kind of regard."
Government regulations should ensure individual rights to life and liberty, she said. That's where freedom starts.
The two women are far from solemn, even though the message is heavy. They smile, joke and ham it up some for audiences. They emphasize facts, not emotions.
They are making progress. After all, the nation belongs to people and people know that they have the right to guide our nation and protect its ideals.
"We list facts, A-B-C-D," Storer said warmly. "It's not theory. We tell people 'Don't run away. Let's dive in and see what we can do about it.'"
• On Sept. 18, 1997, Ted Turner announced a gift of $1 billion in support of United Nations causes. The gift is yet to be fulfilled.
• Turner is the founder of the United Nations Foundation, which promotes sustainable tourism to World Heritage sites.
• World Heritage sites include places such as pyramids in Mexico and Egypt, as well as, potentially, parts of Cherry County and neighboring Grant County.
• The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is listed as strong candidates to become a World Heritage site in a January report by The World Conservation Union.
That refuge is "one of the few remaining examples of sandhill tall grass prairie ecosystem unique to the central Great Plains" and "provides habitat for many rare species", the report said.
• Dave Foreman of the Wildlands project has said that, "Mr. Turner is working with us".
• The Wildlands project is an initiative to set aside lands as wilderness preserves without human access, surrounded by buffer zones and connected with corridors.
• The Nature Conservancy, which buys and manages land for conservation purposes, has helped the Sandhills Task Force, a coalition of ranch and environmental groups, arrange for conservation easements with private landowners.
• Such landowners relinquish development rights, ensuring the land's preservation in perpetuity.
• Several of Turner's properties have conservation easements.
• In a 2001 interview with "Outside Magazine," Turner said after his death, those properties will go into a trust, which his children will manage until the last one passes away. Then the trust will revert to the Turner Foundation. The Turner Foundation strives to preserve and conserve the environment throughout the world.
• Turner's 230,000 acres generate about $600,000 a year in property taxes to Cherry County.
• "I do not believe it is a stretch of the imagination," Storer said, "to be concerned about the future of the tax base, land use and therefore, the productivity and progress of Cherry County."
Other potential heritage sites
• Grant County, south of Hyannis, is the "largest sand dunes complex in the Western Hemisphere" and differs from other large dunes of the world because it is almost completely stabilized by vegetation, the World Conservation Union said.
• Lincoln County is listed as a candidate, although not a strong candidate, because of the loess canyons 17 miles south-southwest of Brady. The Loess, or wind blown silt, there is among the thickest (at 200 plus feet) in North America, according to the WCU.
• The eroded loess canyons and deep valleys reveal the geological history of the Loess Plains better than any other place in the Great Plains, the WCU report said.
(This report was published July 18 in the North Platte Bulletin’s print edition.)