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Published on: Nov. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

The Conservation Department has PLS, but there's no reason to worry. PLS, which stands for Private Land Services, is a good thing. It's the Department's latest effort to help private landowners reap the value of sound conservation practices on their land.

Of course, the Conservation Department has always worked closely with private landowners to improve their property for wildlife. However, the Department established the Private Land Services Division to provide a higher level of assistance to property owners, who it recognizes as conservation's strongest allies.

Private Land Services Division became fully staffed and operational in July 2000. George Seek, a 27-year Conservation Department veteran who has extensive experience in wetland development, wildlife management and strategic planning, was named to head the division. Seek understands the concerns of private landowners, especially those trying to make a living off the land. He is a former farmer and has a degree in Agriculture.

"About 93 percent of Missouri is privately owned," Seek said. "The Department recognized we needed to focus even more on private landowners if we want to improve the quality and quantity of wildlife habitat in the state."

PLS is considered a "field" division. The bulk of the division's 82 employees are spread around the state in Conservation Department offices or USDA Service Centers. Private Land Services employees are your neighbors. Many of them live in small communities like Princeton, Lancaster, Montgomery City, Hillsboro, Nevada, Linn, Marshfield, Ava and Marble Hill. Only a few administrative people have offices in Jefferson City.

Landowners have always been able to receive technical assistance from the Conservation Department. If managing a pond, they asked fisheries division for help. For advice about timber management or a timber sale, they worked with a forester. To improve habitat for deer or quail, they met with someone in the wildlife division.

Staff of all Department divisions still handle landowner requests; however, other divisions have a dual role of managing both public and private land. The Private Land Services Division focus is on providing assistance to private landowners. All PLS employees have attended an eight-week academy to learn about the federal and state programs available to help private landowners.

"Our people are trained and experienced, and they have an amazing number of tools to work with," Seek said. "There's scarcely a landowner we can't help, whether they own land as a hobby, own land primarily for recreational purposes or are farming or ranching for a living."

Seek said the last group works hard to protect soil and water, but because they depend on the land for their livelihood, resource conservation must prove economical. Fortunately, many cost-share programs are available to help landowners whose management practices benefit wildlife. In addition, grants and assistance are available for alternative watering systems and other practices that both protect resources and make a farming or ranching operation more efficient and profitable.

It's a Business

"Some of it is profitability. I make no bones about that," said Steve Baima of Clark, in northern Boone County. Baima describes himself as one of Missouri's many flashlight farmers. "We're either retired, or we work another job and go check our cattle at night," he said. "You can't really call us hobby farmers. My hobbies are fishing and hunting. This is business."

Baima owns 200 acres and runs a commercial cow/calf operation of about 65 cows. "My situation was unusual" he said, "because I retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service about six years ago and knew firsthand the value of many government programs." He said it only makes sense to take advantage of them. "If you are raising cattle by yourself-in a vacuum, so to speak-you're really limiting yourself,"

Baima has been working closely with the Conservation Department for many years. "Before there was a Private Land Services Division, I worked separately with the Fisheries and Forestry divisions," Baima explained "I used to manage three or four other farms, and we fenced out miles of streams and built ponds and did a lot of habitat management."

On his own farm, Baima recently completed an alternative watering system. "We put in a pond that gravity flows to a couple of small paddocks," he said, "and we put in a couple of stream crossings." Baima said he bought all the materials and performed much of the work himself. "The Conservation Department cost-shared on the pond and they paid a flat rate for fencing off the streams."

Cost-sharing can be a major incentive for landowners to protect stream quality.

"Ordinarily, most farmers wouldn't place much value on stream protection, because there is no economic benefit to fencing streams," Baima said. "Unless they receive technical and financial incentives, they won't do it. They need a little enticement."

He said the Department forester also marked trees for a selective harvest and helped him get field bids from various loggers. "In the end, we got what we felt was a fair and honest price. It was a good feeling."

Baima said his dealings with government partnering programs became easier when the Conservation Department put their Private Land Conservationists into Soil and Water District offices.

"It's a hub," he said. "Now I only have to go to one office. There are so many programs available that it will confuse you, but with the PLS, the NRCS people and Soil and Water people all in one place, you can access virtually anybody and everybody and all the programs.

"A farmer's first source of information is other farmers," Baime said. Every successful farmer I've talked to is taking advantage of these partnerships." When people ask me where they can get help, I tell them, 'You're missing the boat if you don't at least talk to these folks.'"

Our Dream Home

Bill Lehmann owns 144 acres in Gasconade County. Although the bulk of the property is woods, He has 30 acres in crops, including five pastures in clover and redtop grass that his neighbor hays for him. He bought the property 21 years ago, and said that until he retired from the printing business a little over a year ago, he could only work on the property about a day and half a week,

"If you could have seen this land 21 years ago, you wouldn't believe it," Lehman said, "You couldn't walk from the house to the barn because it was so completely overgrown. It was full of dead trees and head-high poison ivy. We've been reclaiming from the jungle since day one."

Lehmann said he cleared as much as he could by brush-hogging and discing. "If you don't keep it up, the jungle will return," he said.

He described his work as a labor of love. "The place is primarily for wildlife," he said. "I'm not making any money off it, except for a little bit from the hay, and I put that back into the property."

He said he learned about Conservation Department assistance when he was printing brochures and materials for the Department. "Every time I went there I'd grab literature," he said.

Lehmann said Floyd Ficken from the Consevation Department came out to visit and, using aerial maps, marked out a game improvement plan. The plan included clearing land, planting food plots and making what he called "bunny condos," which are shelters of crisscrossed small logs draped with grapevines and other plants. "They make good refuges for rabbit and quail," he said, "and they can become completely weatherproof if the birds drop seeds in there so that blackberries and other plants will grow."

Ficken also seined sections of Lehmann's pond to check its fertility. He suggested adding grass carp and removing large catfish, which were roiling the bottom, keeping the water muddy. The fishing improved dramatically. This summer Lehmann caught an 8 1/2-pound bass less than 100 yards from his house, and he regularly catches eating-size catfish.

Lehmann had put in his own food plots, but Jennifer Batson, his Private Land Conservationist, helped him by providing seed and suggesting ways to make the food plots more productive.

"She advised me to cut the size of them by a third," Lehmann said. "Now I have one-third in clover and wheat, one-third in milo and one-third as a weed field, and I'm going to alternate them. It'll result in more wildlife-quail, rabbits, anything. I just like wildlife."

Lehmann said Jennifer has helped him and his wife, Bev, enjoy his farm more. "Her specialty is forestry," Lehmann said, "but she knows a lot about wildflowers and says we have an amazing variety of them on our property. She showed us a plant, and Bev jumped back when she called it rattlesnake weed. My wife was afraid it was going to bite her."

Next on the schedule for the Lehmann property is Timber Stand Improvement, or TSI, "Jennifer is coming out to help me ring some trees with a chainsaw," Lehmann said. "We're going to kill enough of the scrub and post oak to open things up for the white oak and walnuts and dogwood. I'll later cut the dead trees down and use them for firewood. I'll also receive a little money, about $65 an acre, which I'll put toward even more improvements."

Recreational Property

Don Smith of Blue Springs purchased 33 acres of bottomland along the Fishing River in Clay County about six years ago. He's a research biologist at the Kansas University Medical Center, and he always found wildlife, including deer and turkey and waterfowl, fascinating to watch and photograph.

He also likes to hunt, and although his property often held standing water, it rarely attracted waterfowl. He said ducks and geese from nearby Cooley Lake Conservation Area frequently flew over his land, but they never used the area, except for a few wood ducks nesting in the trees along the river.

Several years after he purchased the area, he asked the NRCS for help in making his property more inviting to wildlife. "They couldn't help because it wasn't an active farm," Smith said, "so I didn't do anything until I read about the Private Lands Division in the Conservationist. I contacted Jeff Powelson and things really happened fast."

Within six months, Jeff, who served as Private Land Conservationist for Clay and Platte counties, had visited the Smith property several times and helped flag the area for bulldozers. The plan was to install a system of seven pools all connected by troughs. The pools would vary in depth. Some would remain flooded all year, and some would dry up, allowing new growth to resprout annually.

"It was a 3/4 cost-share on a $5,000 project," Smith reported. "The project took two bulldozers going at full tilt the better part of three days to complete. After the pools were dug, Jeff and I planted nearly 300 pounds of grass and other grain seeds."

Smith said the Conservation Department furnished warm-season grass seed and food plot material.

"This has all just come together," Smith said, "but I was out there the other day and saw 18 wood ducks-more than have ever been there before. I can't wait to see how many ducks we attract this fall and winter."

He's already gathered materials to build more wood duck houses and some geese nesting platforms. Future plans may include a pump to help manipulate water levels to further enhance the value of the property for wildlife.

Smith said he takes his family to the property several times a month. "My six-year-old twins just love the pools," he said, "and I like to hunt and take pictures. With the pools filled and the food plots nearby, it's really become an exciting place to visit. I couldn't be happier with the Conservation Department."

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