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Conservation district honored for leadership

DETROIT LAKES -- Sixty years ago, in July 1948, the Becker County Soil and Water Conservation District first came into being, with its official certification by the state of Minnesota.

But its roots actually go back a little farther than that, explained County SWCD Administrator Brad Grant.

"A group of farmers in northwest Becker County began talking about forming a conservation district in 1944," said Grant. "In order to get federal assistance for drainage (projects), you had to form a district."

And in 1944, drainage was a priority. In a commemorative book published during the SWCD's 50th anniversary year in 1998, former SWCD board member Kenneth Brogren described it thus:

"The year 1944 was an extremely wet year, and not much crop was planted in 1945 as the land couldn't be worked in the fall of 1944. This caused farmers in the northwest part of the county to look into ditching.

"A friend of mine, Lief Klemetson and myself talked to farmers in the area and asked if they would like to form a soil conservation district."

A petition was circulated to start a SWCD in Becker County, and on July 10, 1948, a certificate of organization was issued by the state.

When the SWCD was first formed, it encompassed just seven townships in the northwest part of the county: Audubon, Atlanta, Cuba, Hamden, Lake Park, Riceville and Walworth. Spring Creek, Cormorant and Lake Eunice townships were added in 1950. It was (and still is) governed by an elected board of supervisors.

But it wasn't until a referendum was held in 1955 that the district began to encompass all of Becker County's 37 townships. In the early 1970s, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law that caused city land to be incorporated as well.

The first employees of the SWCD, known as farm planners, were all considered to be federal rather than county employees. Their purpose was to develop conservation plans, which included soil survey information and land capability.

"The United States was committed to provide food to the war torn countries of the world," wrote Wayne Ruona, (district conservationist, September 1949-May 1972) in the 50th anniversary commemorative book. "The need to get as much land into production as possible was a necessity for food production."

The SWCD's initial focus was on agricultural drainage, farmstead windbreaks and conservation plans. But when the district became countywide, the purposes of the district expanded as well.

"Suddenly, this (expansion of the district) added a whole new realm of interest and responsibilities to the district, as the land and water resources and use of such within Becker County are varied as they are within the state of Minnesota," wrote Jerome Flottemesch, former chairman of the SWCD Board of Supervisors.

"With land areas within four organized watersheds (Pelican, Cormorant, Buffalo-Red and Wild Rice), and the drainage area of the Ottertail (River) comprising approximately two-thirds of the district, and the other third with drainage to the Mississippi, suddenly the needs, concerns, uses, management organizations and answers to problems became varied and mixed..."

The SWCD continues to provide assistance in developing farm plans, farmstead windbreaks, waterways and seed basins, but over the years, its duties expanded dramatically.

Today, it is governed by a five-member, elected board of supervisors, and currently has a staff of five (four full-time, one part-time), who are responsible for administering and implementing a variety of programs throughout the County.

Some of those programs include:

n Minnesota State Cost-share Program, which provides cost-share assistance to landowners installing conservation practices on their lands.

n The 1992 Wetland Conservation Act, a law pertaining to the draining and filling of wetlands in Minnesota.

n The Becker County Ag Inspector Program, which pertains to the control of noxious weeds in the County. This program was brought under the SWCD's jurisdiction in 2005; previously, the ag inspector had been a county employee.

n Comprehensive Local Water Management Plan, which identifies existing and potential problems and opportunities for the protection, management and development of water and related land resources.

n Providing assistance to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service in providing assistance to landowners with such programs as the Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Wetland Reserve Program, and the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program.

"We administer all aspects of the Wetland Conservation Act in Becker County," Grant said.

Other programs include an extensive tree program, no-till drill rental, abandoned well sealing cost-share, and educational programs such as the 5th Grade Conservation Tour, Envirothon, and a presentation for the annual Ag in the Classroom Program.

"We have a very well-rounded educational program geared toward elementary and high school students," Grant continued. "Since 1972, we have also been the sole sponsors of the Becker County Atlas & Plat Book."

"We are not a county department, though about 50 percent of our operating funds come from the county," Grant said. "Another 30 percent comes from the state."

Sales from the plat book, as well as no-till drill rentals and tree sales help the County SWCD to come up with the remaining 20 percent.

But while the SWCD is not a county department, Grant said, he and his staff have a really good working relationship with the Becker County Board.

"I have a great respect for the way the county board treats us," Grant noted. And in return, "we provide services of value to the county."

The NRCS, which shares office space with the Becker County SWCD, recently recognized the SWCD and its staff for "60 years of providing leadership for the conservation of natural resources in Becker County."

"Our current staff has been here a long time," Grant noted. "Together, we have 112 years of experience in our district staff alone.

"I think we have the public's trust in what we offer, whether it be conservation, cost sharing or regulatory programs."

For more information on the SWCD and its programs, contact Grant and his staff at their office at 809 8th St. SE in Detroit Lakes, or call 218-846-7360.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454