Leopold Conservation Award

The Leopold Conservation Award Program recognizes agricultural landowners actively committed to a land ethic. Sand County Foundation, national sponsor American Farmland Trust and several prominent state conservation partners present the prestigious honor, which consists of $10,000 and a crystal award, in settings that showcase the landowners’ achievements among their peers.

The Leopold Conservation Award is a productive investment in private lands conservation. It recognizes and celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by private landowners, inspires countless other landowners by example and provides a prominent platform by which agricultural community leaders are recognized as conservation ambassadors to citizens outside of agriculture. Finally, the program builds bridges between agriculture, government, environmental organizations, industry and academia to advance the cause of private lands conservation. Watch this video to learn more about the Leopold Conservation Award.

2021 Nebraska Leopold Conservation Award Recipients

Switzer Ranch Loup County, Nebraska

Sarah Sortum and Adam Switzer are siblings and fourth-generation ranchers committed to the stewardship of Switzer Ranch.

They express a land ethic passed down from their parents, Bruce and Sue Ann Switzer, by implementing agricultural conservation practices and connecting others with nature.

In addition to custom grazing beef cattle on 12,000 acres of native prairie, the Switzer family also operates a nature-based tourism business. Calamus Outfitters offers lodging, event space, river float trips, and eco-tours of the Sandhills.

“Our focus really started to shift from being solely a cow-calf operation to being an operation (with) biodiversity goals about 12 years ago,” Sarah said.

To accomplish these goals the Switzers used the ecological processes that helped shape the Great Plains: fire and grazing. A huge motivator for the family was the rapidly disappearing habitat of native prairie grouse.

“At the time, we didn’t realize the plight that grassland birds were in,” she recalls. “If this is their last stronghold, we have got to step up and make sure we provide what they need to survive.”

With assistance from Audubon Nebraska and the World Wildlife Fund, the Switzers learned about bird counting, bird behavior, and other details about the greater prairie-chicken and sharp-tailed grouse. They realized small changes to their ranch management plans could make a big difference for these resident birds that don’t migrate elsewhere.

The Switzers located (and documented with GPS technology) the birds’ breeding grounds on the ranch. This helped prioritize which areas to target for removal of invasive species that threaten bird habitat. With a lifespan of about five years for the prairie chicken, the Switzers wanted to be sure they quickly focused on the right pockets of the ranch.

“A lot can happen in five years, as far as damaging a whole generation of birds,” Sarah said.

The Switzers received cost-share from the Sandhills Task Force and Nebraska Game and Parks for invasive tree removal and prescribed burns. With support from local Natural Resources Conservation Service staff, they installed wildlife-friendly fencing, added wildlife escape ramps in their watering tanks, and implemented bird and wildlife-friendly haying practices. Land along the Calamus River was placed in a conservation easement with The Nature Conservancy.

The Switzers have met the biodiversity goals they set out to achieve 12 years ago with the use of fire and rotational grazing. They showed that ranchers can create bird and wildlife habitat, while improving water quality, soil health and root systems in the environmentally-sensitive Sandhills.

Not only did their efforts lead to an uptick in bird watchers visiting the ranch, but when Audubon Nebraska designated the ranch as an Important Bird Area, it was among the first private properties in Nebraska with that designation.

Always looking to connect others to the importance of grassland bird habitat, the Switzers even played host to a fun and educational Prairie Chicken Festival.

Resiliency is defined on some ranches as the conservation of natural resources. For others it’s ensuring future economic viability. At Switzer Ranch these attributes go hand in hand.

To apply or nominate for the Leopold Conservation Award contact AFAN at 402.421.4472