It’s not about the money

When someone starts a conversation with those words, you know exactly where they’re coming from. You can talk about ideals and principles, but for the majority of people, big decisions have to be good for the bottom line. Enter the Salt Creek tiger beetle that lives in saline habitat north of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Salt creek tiger beetle. Many thanks, Tony Palmer and, for permission to use excellent photo.

At first glance, the Salt Creek tiger beetle might be thought of as a poster-child for arguments against environmental regulations. How important could a beetle be? Who has ever seen one? How much difference would it make to your life if we just let it disappear?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is administrator for the Endangered Species Act, a law that places no priority over species that might not somehow serve mankind. The USFWS has been stuck between environmental ideals and private industry throughout the century it has existed. While politicians and private industry argued over whether to spend taxpayer money to preserve the Salt Creek tiger beetle’s environment, a group of conservationists from the USFWS at Wood River, local Natural Resources District, the City of Lincoln, the Game & Parks Commission, and the Nature Conservancy talked up the Salt Creek tiger beetle story until the tiny beetle became a bit of a local phenomenon.  Still, you have to spend some time in Nebraska, and probably in Lincoln, to get it.

Even as insects go, the Salt Creek tiger beetle is plain. Cicindela nevadica lincolniana has a body that shines metallic in good light, but the color is mottled olive-gold, and blends into the sand and mud. Large eyes are the only part of its little face we can make out, and it doesn’t stand still.

Most of us never see a Salt Creek tiger beetle for two reasons: there is only one salt creek system in Nebraska, and the beetle spends most of its 2-year life underground.  It comes up for only 4 weeks in early June. So life as we know it would not change noticeably if the Salt Creek tiger beetle disappeared.

In the short run, that is.

While arguments raged about what good is a beetle, those few who believed in the tiger beetle and its habitat quietly raised money to begin buying back land in the Salt Creek drainage. So far that land totals over 1,500 acres, with another 900 acres protected against development by conservation easements. This is about one-third of the land designated by Fish and Wildlife in 2014 as prime Salt Creek tiger beetle habitat.

Meanwhile, the beetle was listed as endangered by Nebraska in 2000 and federally in 2005. Finally in 2014 the Fish and Wildlife Service funded a formal recovery plan for $30 million.

The question is, why? If you can understand the value of the Salt Creek tiger beetle, you can understand environmental amenities.  It’s not just about the money. It’s also about us.  Turns out, lands under protection are opened to the public.  Just a mile away from I-80 and the hustle and bustle of the North 27th Street interchange is a place where people now go get away from the city and take a walk.  Further north and north east near Ceresco, large parcels of land purchased with the beetle in mind are also open to the public, and contribute to a setting where it’s hard to believe a major city is near.

It’s also about the planet. Those lands purchased or under conservation easement for the beetle also provide flood protection and improve water quality for people. Those lands provide habitat for a huge diversity and number of other wildlife species.  $30 million isn’t a lot for these benefits.

The Salt Creek tiger beetle evolved north of Lincoln in an area where an ancient sea covered Nebraska about 100 million years ago, leaving salt deposits, now far from either ocean.  Early settlers needed salt for food preservation, which is why they chose the site for Lincoln, thinking they could mine it. The industry was short-lived, 1850-1880s. They failed to find a deep salt lode, and the intercontinental railroad came, delivering salt more economically. For another decade, our Capitol Beach, thought to be the largest saline wetland of all, instead boasted health spas, while tourists gawked at the “crystal lakes” glistening in the sun from evaporated salt.

Lincoln retained status as State Capital, and the salt lake remained a site for recreation through the 1950s. Still we can see the salt from the Age of Reptiles and our inland sea of 70-150 million years ago, especially from airport land northeast of Capitol Beach just off the northwest side of I-80.  When it’s hot there during the summer and a few days after a rain, the salt crusts look like snow.

Our pioneers decided that if they couldn’t make money on the salt, they would try to eliminate it and farm the land. That generally failed too because most crops cannot tolerate high concentrations of salty soil.  Channelization of Salt Creek began in 1891 to prevent its frequent flooding, which prevented crop production and resulted in the loss of property and lives. After the big flood of 1950, the Army Corps got serious, and the straightened creeks now run deep, and serve to drain rather than offer subirrigation of the soil. Restorers are now encouraging the Salt Creek and its tributaries to re-salinate the soil, and to create the moist saline seeps environment the beetle likes for burrows. We hope the beetle will respond enthusiastically at the NRD’s Marsh Wren property and several other small restorations where such saline restoration projects are occurring.

It’s about understanding our impact. Acting only in favor of our bottom line, we impact our world, often in negative ways. Thinking only about the short term, one day we will discover a natural world we can no longer live in. For our own survival, we are responsible for our land.

And there is a lot we don’t know. Biologists and students have already added to our understanding of the Salt Creek tiger beetle’s habits and needs, rare salt-loving plants it lives beneath and which have nearly disappeared from the area, groundwater management, and population dynamics of many species, including the migrating water birds attracted to salt water.  As the Salt Creek tiger beetle returns, animals that eat it will be healthy, and animals that eat them may even be us. The Salt Creek tiger beetle will teach us how to approach other situations that have been diminished by our short-sightedness.

We are part of our world, not separate from it. And we are the only part that has evolved to know that.

…extracting a living from the land was a matter of survival. Later, intensive use of the land brought a higher standard of living. Not until recent decades did we glance back and realize the cost to our natural heritage of this prosperity.
Jon Farrar and Richard Gersib. Nebraska Salt Marshes. 1991.


The author thanks Bob Harms of the US Fish & Wildlife Service for his help.

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