War loomed on the horizon in 1940 and farmers were urged to give all-out production. Farmers in Nez Perce County alternated winter wheat with summer fallow, burning off crop residues after harvest. Thousands of tons of soil poured into the Clearwater and Snake Rivers each year.
Several farmers became alarmed, seeing the fertility and livelihood of the land they loved disappear. They set out to correct the problem by circulating petitions to form a conservation district. Fourteen meetings were held around the county, where farm operators and owners discussed their conservation needs. Public hearings were held and on May 2, 1941, 289 people voted to form the Nez Perce Soil and Water Conservation District, and received a certificate of organization from the U.S. Secretary of State on June 17, 1941. The polling locations were designated at Southwick, Leland, Gifford, Lapwai, Reubens, Culdesac, Lewiston Orchards, Peck, Melrose, Lenore, and Genesee. Only 13 votes were registered against the formation of the District. The Nez Perce SWCD is the seventh legally organized district in the state of Idaho.
This petition and referendum process is designated under Idaho State Law (Title 22, Chapter 27, Idaho State Code). The first two District supervisors were appointed by the Idaho Soil Conservation Commission and were Walter Halsey (Culdesac) and W.H. Mervyn (Genesee).
The District duly elected three more Board supervisors Ernest Butler (Gifford), Bert Schraeder (Lewiston), and J.W. Woodland (Leland) on September 3, 1941. Over the years, the District’s population and resource needs expanded and two more supervisory positions were added. Today, there are seven elected supervisory positions and several paid District staff (see section on District Administration). Many talented people have served on the District board. Table 1 lists those who have served and provided strong leadership to conserving our natural resources.
The next significant step for the District occurred on February 10,1942 as the District entered into a basic Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Soil Conservation Service (now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service or NRCS). This MOU aligned a local government organization with a federal agency, which could supply needed resources. The District retained the authority to sponsor and prioritize the planning and implementation of projects while NRCS agreed to give technical direction and resource support.
The District’s main office was in Lewiston. To make conservation services available to farmers in outlying areas, the Nez Perce and Latah districts opened sub-offices in Genesee and Kendrick. These offices remained open until the 1960s.
The young District faced a dilemma: demands for conservation services were growing, but the District had little money or equipment to do the job. So the Nez Perce and Latah districts began to share equipment and employed contractor John Barnhard to build stock ponds.
Equipment rentals and other sources finally provided a small bank balance – enough for stamps and post cards. Progress accelerated, although financial problems continued. Without county and state support, the District could not offer a conservation program today.
In the early years, the District Board had some difficulty gathering the resources needed to carry out their operations. For many years the District operated with only one part-time paid staff member, an administrative assistant. During one period, the supervisors worked with the Latah Soil and Water Conservation District via equipment rental to landowners.
Significant changes in farming and ranching practices have also occurred over time. The now common use of contour strip cropping, for example, was introduced to the Tammany Creek area of the District in the early 1940s. Terracing cropland to reduce erosion and constructing small ponds for conserving water were other significant practices adopted in the District, which are now common. Conservation practices currently gaining acceptance include no-till and direct seeding practices, gully plugs, sediment basins, buffer strips, and biocontrol pest management.
The District built relationships with a number of governmental agencies over the years by developing cooperative agreements and/or memo of understanding (MOUs). MOUs and cooperative agreements outline agreed upon policies, resource sharing, and goals making the expectations of both entities clear.
The District’s main purpose is to conserve local resources, primarily soil and water. This 1930s disaster impacted the entire USA, which focused the nation on natural resource conservation. The District founders were agricultural producers who hoped to improve local farming and ranching conditions. The organization of this District increased the availability of much needed financial, technical, and educational resources to local landowners.
Over the years public opinion concerning “conservation” has changed, just as conservation practices have changed with developing technology and new scientific discoveries. Today, District staff work hand in hand with local partners to implement best management conservation practices (BMPs).
District operations have also changed, strongly influenced by state and federal legislation. The District has an increased emphasis on watershed protection and is involved in a number of watershed/ water quality projects aimed at improving water quality, reducing soil erosion, and improving wildlife and fisheries habitat. The District also supports and assists neighboring Soil and Water Conservation Districts with water quality projects in several watersheds: Little Potlatch, Lapwai Creek, Mission Creek, Bedrock Creek, and Big Canyon Creek.
In addition, the District extends its educational outreach program through newsletters, workshops, and participation in other public outreach activities. One example of this is the District’s organization and sponsorship of a sixth grade environmental education day. The District coordinates the event with local natural resource agencies and schools.