Soil and Water Conservation Society Honors 2023 Award Winners

Soil and Water Conservation Society Honors 2023 Award Winners

Four leaders in Nebraska resource conservation, as well as the Nebraska Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS), were recently honored by the International SWCS at the 78th SWCS International Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. The Nebraska Chapter SWCS also honored seven individuals or groups recently at the state chapter meeting. The society is a nonprofit scientific and educational association dedicated to advancing the science and art of good land use and improvement of natural resources.

International SWCS Award Winners

Receiving one of only three Fellow Awards this year, Dr. John Gilley (SWCS member since 1983), of Lincoln, is a research agricultural engineer with USDA Agricultural Research Service and an adjunct professor with the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The designation of Fellow is conferred on society members who have performed exceptional service in advocating conservation of soil, water and related natural resources and is given for professional excellence, first and foremost. Professional achievement may be in practicing, investigating, administering, or teaching soil and water conservation or closely related fields.  A few of John’s accomplishments include quantifying critical upland hydraulic variables for the USDA Water Erosion Prediction Project (WEPP) model and developing the WEPP hydraulics model component. He also identified runoff and erosion benefits from land application of manure as well as determined setback distance requirements for land application areas. 

John Gilley and Clare Lindahl
Figure 1. John Gilley, receiving the Commendation Award from SWCS CEO Clare Lindahl, at the SWCS International Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

Two Nebraska SWCS members received the Society Service Award, which is given in recognition of distinguished service in helping the society to develop and carry out its program over a long and sustained period of time.

Jim Culver and Clare Lindahl
Figure 2. Jim Culver, receiving the Commendation Award from SWCS CEO Clare Lindahl, at the SWCS International Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jim Culver (1961), from Lincoln, was a field soil scientist in central Oklahoma, an assistant state soil scientist in Iowa, state soil scientist in Nebraska, regional soil scientist and national leader for quality assurance at the National Soil Survey Center, and assistant director of the Soil Survey Division with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Jim was a “Million Acre Mapper”, recognized by the chief of the NRCS. Jim was asked to be on Smithsonian design team for the “Dig It! Secrets of Soil” traveling education display and was instrumental in Nebraska’s fundraising effort to support this exhibit. Jim was president of the Lincoln Chapter of the Soil Conservation Society of America and recognized for outstanding leadership in developing and organizing an educational program which influenced the passage of the bill making the Holdrege Series the official Nebraska State Soil. Jim has also been involved in many Lincoln-area community volunteer projects.

Claudia Stevenson (1987), of Ogallala, uses the mission of SWCS to guide her actions in the Nebraska Chapter. She was instrumental in starting, and served as the co-chair for eight years, the Farming Evolution — a two-day, multi-state conference in Holyoke, Colorado. This annual conference aims to educate landowners about the best practices for creating healthy soil. As both membership chair and president of the Nebraska Chapter, she has reached out to introduce members to one another through an ongoing campaign called “Spotlight on Members”, which is emailed to the membership. Membership participation is very important to Claudia. In 2023, she invited the entire chapter to attend a regular board meeting and 20 members participated in the virtual meeting. Claudia created a leadership handbook to guide the officers, board of directors and the chairs of committees and a workbook for annual tours and meetings, which is a guide for planning the annual state chapter meeting. She has also helped plan the last three state chapter meetings.

Claudia Stevenson and Clare Lindahl
Figure 3. Claudia Stevenson, receiving the Commendation Award from SWCS CEO Clare Lindahl, at the SWCS International Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.
Zamir Libohova and Clare Lindahl
Figure 4. Zamir Libohova, receiving honorable mention for Best Research Paper for Impact and Quality Award from SWCS CEO Clare Lindahl, at the SWCS International Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

Zamir Libohova (2021), formerly from Lincoln and now with the USDA ARS in Arkansas, was given honorable mention for Best Research Paper for Impact and Quality Award. Libohova was lead author of the paper in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation titled, “Re-evaluating the effects of soil organic matter and other properties on available water-holding capacity using the National Cooperative Soil Survey Characterization Database.”

The Nebraska Chapter SWCS was one of 10 chapters given the Outstanding Chapter Award in recognition for the chapter’s success in carrying out its overall program during the past year. The chapter produces two newsletter editions a year, has an annual state meeting and a legislative/informational breakfast. The chapter’s Facebook is gaining regional and national attention. Chapter member spotlights are emailed to members, and the chapter’s historical archives are being digitized for broader use. The chapter supports the UNL Soil and Water Resources Club. It also supports two charitable foundations, one with the University of Nebraska Foundation and the other with the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Foundation — each providing student scholarships annually to deserving young conservationists. An annual golf tournament is held to raise funds for supporting the foundations and student scholarships

In addition, the Chapter received the Exceptional Event award for holding its annual legislative/informational meeting. This meeting was held in February 2023 in downtown Lincoln, where Rob Lawson, USDA NRCS state conservationist, presented on the various USDA programs available to landowners in Nebraska. These include Environmental Quality Incentives Programs (EQIP), Regional Conservation Partners Projects (RCCP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Lawson provided highlights for 2022 accomplishments and shared information about new NRCS initiatives for 2023. Five state senators, one legislative aid, 14 SWCS members and three scholarship recipients from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln were in attendance.

Nebraska SWCS Chapter members and Clare Lindahl
Figure 5. Members of the Nebraska SWCS Chapter accept the Outstanding Chapter Award from SWCS CEO Clare Lindahl, at the 2023 International Conference held in Des Moines, Iowa. (From left) Craig Derickson, Jim Culver, Claudia Stevenson, Clare Lindahl and Keith Berns.

State SWCS Award Winners

Each year, the Nebraska SWCS Chapter recognizes and honors work from people who promote its goals in the state.

Commendation Award

The Commendation Award recognizes SWCS members for service to their chapter or council of chapters. Three members received this award:

Jim Barr (1980), of Lincoln, was an aide to Congressman Doug Bereuter, and worked closely with state and national organizations, including SWCS. Most of his activities relating to the mission of SWCS were in the legislative realm. One of his main efforts centered on the conservation provisions of various farm bills from 1979 to 2001, including the 1985 Farm Bill, which included the Conservation Reserve Program. Jim was involved in the drafting the Groundwater Conservation Fund Act in the Nebraska Unicameral which later was broadened into the Water Conservation Fund. He also drafted the Groundwater Recharge Demonstration legislation, in the process working with the staffs of other members of House and Senate, as well as municipalities including Los Angeles and San Antonio. Jim also helped in coordinating support for re-authorization and appropriations for the Missouri River Fish and Wildlife Mitigation Program. Jim’s most recent effort was to coordinate the Nebraska Natural Resources District Oral History Project, a compilation of over 80 45-minute oral histories spanning former and current staff and leadership of all 23 NRDs and key individuals that helped ensure their formation.

Claudia Stevenson and Clare Lindahl
Figure 6. Darwin Hinrichs, Nebraska Chapter awards committee, and Commendation Award recipient Jim Barr, at the 2023 Nebraska Chapter annual awards banquet in Nebraska City.
Anita Nein
Figure 7. Anita Nein, Nebraska Chapter awards committee, and Dick Ehrman, Commendation Award recipient, at the 2023 Nebraska Chapter annual awards banquet in Nebraska City.

Dick Ehrman (2009), of Lincoln, is a water resources specialist with the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District (NRD). He has been involved with the Nebraska Chapter’s scholarship committee since 2015 and on the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Foundation board since 2017, serving as vice president since 2022. Dick has worked as a water resources specialist for the Central Platte NRD, a groundwater geologist for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, and an NRD/NDEQ liaison with the Nebraska Association of NRDs. He is most proud of being a part of educating the agricultural community, conservation sector and general public on the importance of groundwater to the citizens of Nebraska, and helping to develop and implement plans for the monitoring and protection of that resource. He’s helped develop a statewide network of groundwater monitoring wells in Nebraska and has spent much time training and educating state and NRD personnel, as well as engaging in outreach to farmers, public water suppliers and water users statewide. By working at the state and local level, often in conjunction with federal agencies, he’s had a positive impact on understanding and managing nonpoint source groundwater concerns, like nitrate and pesticides, as well as issues with fluctuating ground water levels.

Paul Zillig (1983), Lincoln, general manager of the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District (LPSNRD), has been a longtime member of SWCS, joining after graduating from UNL and beginning his career with the LPSNRD as a conservation technician in 1979. He has served as the SWCS election committee chair for approximately 25 years. Conservation has always been a high priority for this area and I’ve encouraged the NRD’s support of all SWCS activities ranging from youth scholarships to prizes and financial support of the annual Dave Langemeier SWCS golf tourney. The NRD recognizes the need to have conservation technicians on staff to assist USDA NRCS as we assist landowners with the planning and design on conservation practices to conserve and protect our soil and water resources. Paul spent over 30 years administering and managing the NRD’s cost-share programs with private landowners to install terrace systems, grassed waterways and farm ponds.

Honor Award

The Honor Award recognizes non-members for outstanding accomplishments reflecting the society’s objectives.

Joanna Pope
Figure 8. Nebraska Chapter SWCS Honor Award recipient Joanna Pope.

Joanna Pope, public affairs officer for Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service, works every day to share the importance of conserving and protecting natural resources. She helps educate the public about conservation programs, practices and the services NRCS can provide. Joanna was a student trainee with the NRCS while attending UNL as an environmental studies major. As a student, she was awarded a scholarship from the Nebraska SWCS Chapter. Upon graduation, she became a soil conservationist with NRCS, then onto the public affairs specialist position with Nebraska NRCS. Her most significant conservation achievement is the Conservation at Work video series. She’s been the national team lead for this project since 2019. This video series highlights individual conservation practices in a 90-second video. Each video features the landowner installing the practice and the NRCS professional who worked with them. This series has taken her across the U.S. where she has been honored to meet the farmers, ranchers and forest landowners NRCS assists. Joanna has provided assistance to the Nebraska SWCS Chapter in promoting events, annual meetings and presentations, and recently assisted Nebraska State Conservationist Rob Lawson with the presentation he gave at the SWCS legislative/informational breakfast meeting this spring.

Innovation Award

The Innovation Award gives state recognition to individuals that have an innovated approach to the science and art of wise land use.

Janet and Mike McDonald, Hickman, say the passion of stewardship, sustainability and community are foremost in their priorities. They strive to protect and enhance soil and water through diverse rotations and take steps annually to develop habitat for the wide range of life on their farm, both above  and below ground. They capture moisture and build organic matter through resilient rotations. Specifically through utilizing cereal grains, biological foliar amendments, and precision agriculture. In addition, they identify marginal acres for transitioning to perennials and developing synergistic nutrient cycling (using hairy vetch, Austrian peas and various clovers) to reduce inputs. Their most significant step is tailoring soil health and water quality work on the range of glaciated soils on their land in southeast Nebraska. Through many venues, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, No-Till on the Plains, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), their Peer Learning Community and other groups, they learn with others toward building community particularly in rural areas. They also regularly host field days and training events on their own farm, and were instrumental, along with UNL Extension, in developing five Peer Learning Communities in Nebraska for sustaining growth in the principles of soil health.

Janet and Mike McDonald and Doug Garrison
Figure 9. Janet and Mike McDonald receiving the Innovation Award, with Doug Garrison, SWCS awards committee, at the 2023 Nebraska Chapter annual awards banquet in Nebraska City.

Merit Award

The Merit Award is given in recognition of an outstanding effort or activity by a group, business firm, corporation or organization that promotes wise land use. There are two recipients this year:

Lincoln Center Kiwanis members
Figure 10. Nebraska Chapter awards committee member Doug Garrison presents the Merit Award to the Lincoln Center Kiwanis (and Nebraska Chapter) members (from left) Jim Culver, Mike Kucera and Dayle Williamson at the 2023 Nebraska Chapter annual awards banquet in Nebraska City.

The Lincoln Center Kiwanis Ag and Environment Committee is active with school garden activities, community gardens, FFA farm city breakfast, soils backpacks, scholarship awards and many other conservation activities in Lincoln and surrounding communities. Examples include school gardens and barrel drip irrigation systems at Elliot and Pershing Elementary schools, Mickle Middle School, Northeast High, Lakeside and the Lighthouse greenhouse/raised beds. Ag and environment support many school science fairs in the Lincoln community. The group led the construction of the Indian Center Pow Wow arbor, which has many environmental education activities. They provide soils and materials to third grade teachers to provide soils information to all LPS students in the city. They support conservation tree plantings and other activities at the Girl Scout Center and 4-H Center near Ashland. In addition, they constructed and support 16 garden beds at Mahoney Manor and Burke Plaza, which provides gardening activities for elderly residents at these subsidized housing units.

The Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, Lincoln, has almost 40 conservation easements to perpetually protect important environmental resources, many of which are for the protection, conservation and restoration of critically imperiled saline wetlands. It has numerous cost-share programs such as land treatment, cover crops, community forestry, water management, etc. to protect and enhance soil, water, and other natural resources. It has been involved in the construction and maintenance of a wide variety of flood control structures and projects for the protection of lives, property and natural resources. It has developed and implemented a groundwater management plan, which specifies actions to protect and manage the quality and quantity of groundwater, and has cooperated and collaborated with other NRDs, cities and water suppliers to comprehensively manage water resources in the Lower Platte River basin. Lastly, it has implemented many environmental education programs for youth and citizens to emphasize soil and water conservation, environmental awareness and protection of natural resources.

More information about the Nebraska SWCS Chapter can be found at and on Facebook.

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