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South Dakota conservation suffering amid ag boom, officials say

Rebecca Baker and Mike Coleman, back center, lead a discussion on a state conservation plan during a meeting Wednesday night in Mitchell. A small gathering of people attended the meeting at the Highland Conference Center. (Tom Lawrence/Republic)

High prices for farm commodities have farmers smiling, but those profits are having a negative impact on South Dakota's natural resources.

That reality was made clear during a meeting Wednesday evening at the Highland Conference Center in Mitchell to discuss the South Dakota Coordinated Plan for Natural Resources Conservation.

"We're getting too far away from some of the CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) programs," said Jim Lehi, manager of the Davison County Conservation District. "And the wetlands are disappearing,"

Lehi said he doesn't blame farmers. With record corn prices and other high returns for ag products, farmers are planting land that was once set aside either for conservation reasons or because the return wasn't worth the investment.

He said there is little his agency can do other than ask people to be more aware of conservation.

"You can suggest," Lehi said. "It's ultimately up to the landowner what they want to do."

Across the state, land that has been used for pasture and rangeland is being farmed, according to staffers with HDR Engineering, of Sioux Falls, who conducted the meeting. The company was hired by the state to do so.

It was the sixth of seven meetings held in cities across South Dakota to garner feedback on local and state conservation efforts and goals. Fewer than 10 people attended, and most were involved with area conservation districts.

Jill Rust, a staff biologist for HDR, said the same concerns are being raised at all the meetings. People are concerned that conservation, which has long had a high priority in the state, is being forgotten in a rush for profit.

The South Dakota Coordinated Plan for Natural Resources Conservation was first adopted in 1991. Initial goals were to reduce erosion, improve groundwater and overall water quality and bolster pasture and rangeland in the state.

Air quality, the protection of wildlife habitat and preserving wetlands were among the issues added to the goals in a 2007 revision of the plan. Increasing public awareness and raising money from outside sources were also included.

That plan is now updated every five years, and that's why these meetings are being held, according to Brian Scott, a natural resource specialist for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, which oversees the conservation program. The state wants to learn if people feel the 2007 goals were met, and what programs should be implemented in the future.

Changes in agricultural methods, new uses for agricultural products, and improved understanding of conservation benefits and methods were the primary forces in efforts to revise and expand previous plans.

The grant program issues $500,000 to districts in the state annually. Originally, the state wanted to set aside up to $1.2 million for the program, Scott said.

In fact, the money, which came from state gas tax revenue, never topped $900,000, he said.

In 2011, the Legislature decided to sever the program's ties with the gas tax, Scott said, and decided to give it a flat $500,000.

A revolving loan program also provides money for projects in the district. It has 15 outstanding loans totaling more than $104,000 and $70,000 in available money.

The Davison Conservation District does not have any outstanding loans but has received some grant money in the past, Lehi said.

It usually receives $15,000 to $20,000 for a three-year program, he said.

Dave Kringen, a James River Water Development District employee, attended Wednesday's meeting to see if any dollars were available for the Lower James River Implementation Project.

Kringen said he and colleague Dave Bartel, who is also the acting director of the JRWDD, are working to improve water quality in the region.

They work with feedlot owners to reduce the flow of nutrients into the river, and encourage farmers to place buffer strips between their land and the river.

The project sought $634,000 for 2012 but received $281,000, Kringen said.

The money comes from a federal program that is passed through the state. He said he hopes to access some grant money from the state conservation program.

Scott said the ultimate goal is to combine the money allocated to the districts with other state programs, federal dollars and money from private conservation agencies.

Rolled together, they can fund larger projects that might impact more than one conservation district, he said.

There are 69 conservation districts in South Dakota. Some counties contain two districts while some districts encompass two or more counties.

Wade Strand is the chairman of the Davison County Conservation District. He leads a five-member board, the members of which are elected to four-year terms.

Bruce Haines, of Mitchell, is the vice chairman, and other board members are Paul Hetland, of Mitchell, Lewis Bainbridge, of Ethan, and Darwin Kreth, of Mount Vernon.

All five seats will be up for election on the Nov. 6 ballot. Normally, the seats are filled on a rotating basis, but appointments to the board have compelled all five to be up for grabs this year.

Lehi said tree plantings, native grass seedings and site preparation continue to provide the majority of the work for the district.

Lehi said this year marks the 75th anniversary of conservation districts in the state. He said he'd like to come up with an idea to mark their impact.

"I haven't come up with a good idea yet," Lehi said.

The State Conservation Commission is governed by a nine-member citizen commission. Its members are appointed by the governor and represent farming, water development districts, the tree industry, and the South Dakota Municipal League. There is one at-large member.

Current members are:

Farmers: Gerald Thaden, of Marvin, Alan Vedvei, of Lake Preston, Tom Wolles, of Colton, David Fischbach, of Faith.

Tree industry: Wayne Bunge, of Rapid City, and Charlie Moe, of Rosebud.

Water development districts: Tom Glover, of Burke.

Municipal League: Aaron Kiesz, of Aberdeen.

At-large: Doug Hansen, of Webster.

For more information or to submit comments, go to m, or send them to Bill Smith, South Dakota Department of Agriculture, Division of Resource Conservation and Forestry, 523 E Capitol Ave., Pierre, S.D. 57501-3182.