The World-Herald Master Conservationist award recognizes outstanding stewardship of Nebraska's precious land and water resources.
The honor dates to 1983, when it was conceived by then-Publisher Harold W. Andersen of The World-Herald and then-President D.B. “Woody” Varner of the University of Nebraska. Their idea was refined by the leadership of the University of Nebraska's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and by executives at the newspaper.
The program was originated to focus attention on sound conservation methods and to promote those practices. Initially, the award provided a way to recognize men and women who implemented such conservation practices as terraces, grassed waterways, dams, shelter tree belts, minimum tillage and irrigation scheduling.
Today, greater emphasis is placed on long-term water conservation innovation and implementation. In the past, awards were presented by regions of the state and focused on production agriculture. Now it is a statewide competition and awards are given, as warranted, in three categories: production agriculture, community and youth.
This year, awards will be presented to Scott Stout of Curtis and a leader in the N&N ranching enterprise in southern Lincoln County and northern Frontier County (agriculture production) and to Six Mile Canal Co. of Gothenburg (community).
Read about our 2013 honorees below.
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Scott Stout, agriculture production
In the rugged Loess Canyon in south-central Nebraska, the eastern red cedar stands as a threat to native wildlife.
The tree has been covering pastures of grasses native to the canyon, forcing cattle ranchers to take an aggressive approach to the trees: burning them out.
“The trees aren't a natural part to this landscape,” said Scott Stout, a rancher with N&N Ranching Enterprise and winner of The World-Herald's 2013 Master Conservationist Award in the agriculture production category. “They take over the grass which is used for grazing, which in turn, hurts our pocketbooks.”
Stout is the “burn boss” for the Loess Canyon Rangeland Alliance, an initiative of about 50 landowners and ranchers committed to preserving native grassland. Since Stout took charge of prescribed burns, the alliance has reclaimed more than 3,100 acres of native land, allowing native grass — particularly Big Bluestem and Indiangrass — to increase.
Doug Whisenhunt, a state burn specialist for the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service, nominated Stout for the award. He described Stout as a “dynamic leader with great foresight and energy, and people just seem to follow him.”
Whisenhunt helped found the Rangeland Alliance in 2002. He trained a number of members for the position of burn boss, but Stout emerged as the group's leader.
“We would get people together to burn, but they didn't have that much experience,” Whisenhunt said. “Until we got a leader like Scott in the community, we made little progress. Now look at us.”
It took time to convince some landowners that burning was the most efficient way to get rid of the red cedar. But “once people realized that our group was professional about the whole process, they realized the benefit,” Stout said.
Much remains to be done, Stout said. The Rangeland Alliance can conduct only about five burns a year, affecting between 5,000 and 7,000 acres. A year later, he said, that same land needs to be burned again to fully destroy the red cedar.
“It's a continuous process and I don't think we will ever be fully done,” Stout said.
Six Mile Canal, community
Receiving water to irrigate his fields used to be a complicated process for Roger Wahlgren.
He had to call two days ahead, hope water was still available from the surface water canal in Dawson County and then go to his fields several times a day to make sure the water system was working properly.
Now, all Wahlgren needs to do is press a button on his phone, thanks to a 2010 agreement between the Central Platte National Resources District and Six Mile Canal Co., that implemented a groundwater irrigation system. Six Mile Canal's effort earns The World-Herald's 2013 Master Conservationist Award winner in the community category.
“It's just immensely easier now,” Wahlgren said.
Six Mile Canal used to divert Platte River water to surface water irrigators in Dawson County. As part of the agreement, the 116-year-old canal was sold to the NRD so that water could be returned to the Platte River.
The lack of a surface water canal system now allows farmers to apply nutrients to crops through chemigation systems using center-pivot irrigation, reducing the risk of groundwater pollution.
“That canal served its purpose throughout the years,” said Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts who also nominated Six Mile for the award.
An average of 750 million gallons of water was withdrawn from the canal annually since 1894. The new groundwater irrigation system has allowed 42 million gallons to be returned to the Platte River each year.
The water's return has resulted in increased protection for endangered species and other wildlife in the area, while farmers have enjoyed lower fuel and labor costs along with improved efficiency.
Six Mile Canal set the tone for other irrigation companies to make agreements with NRDs; four other such deals are in discussions or final agreement in Nebraska, including Thirty-Mile Canal and Cozad Canal.
“If Six Mile hadn't taken that first step, no other agreements would have been reached,” Edson said. “They got the ball moving and now the whole state is following.”