MR. STARR: This is Gayle Starr interviewing Don Hood, who was the Manager of the Nemaha NRD in Tecumseh for some years, and interviewing Don by telephone from his home in Arkansas on January 30th, 2014. So, with that, Don, why don't you give me a few minutes of your history.
MR. HOOD: Well, Gayle, actually, I would maybe go back to when I joined the natural resource district. I joined the district in 1976. I believe it was during the month of June, and served as the Manager of the Nemaha Natural Resource District for, I believe, oh, I think 14 years. At that time, I left the NRD and went -- tried to get involved with another organization. It really turned out it was not successful, so I started my own business and headquartered out of Lincoln, Nebraska, and ultimately constructed a nursery/garden center as far as -- about 16 miles -- well, actually, from the southeast corner of Lincoln, just inside Otoe County. And that garden center was named Tree World. And my wife and I ran that business for 15 years having started it from scratch. Nothing but a milo/bean field when we began. We built the buildings, the greenhouses, and sold Ferti-lome products and trees, shrubs. My wife put in over 24,000 bedding plants each spring, and in conjunction with that, we did landscaping, as well as moved trees with two 50-inch tree spades. And we conducted that business until we decided to retire. And that's when we retired, we decided we wanted to go south and get away a little bit from the snow and the cold weather. And so we moved to Bella Vista, Arkansas. And that's where we're at here, enjoying the retirement years.
MR. STARR: Very good. What got you interested in the job as the NRD manager in the first place? What brought that about?
MR. HOOD: Well, before joining the natural resource district, I was the State Conservation Commission Executive Secretary in the state of Wyoming. And that required considerable travel with the 39 conservation districts throughout the state of Wyoming. And so, I was on the road almost weekly. And frankly, my children were starting to go to school and they were -- I wasn't spending hardly any time with my family, because I was on the road so much doing the job as Executive Secretary of the Commission. So, Dayle Williamson, who was Executive Secretary at Nebraska Conservation Commission suggested to me to consider possibly applying for general manager at the Nemaha NRD, because I wanted to stay in the conservation field. And so, that's how I ended up applying for work as general manager of the NRD and I was successful and became its general manager.
MR. STARR: When you first got to Tecumseh and started on the job, what was your impression? Did you run into a lot of surprises.
MR. HOOD: Oh, yes. Yes, there was a lot of surprises. I was not familiar with the watershed program and the role of the natural resource district working in conjunction with the Soil Conservation Service on the PL 566 watershed program, and recognizing that the NRD's responsibility required a lot of time spent on working on land rights and negotiations and so, that was something new for me and I found it to be very challenging and actually rewarding, although it surely had a lot of ups and downs, but it was -- I felt very good about it.
MR. STARR: Over the 14 years or however long it was you were there, what changed for the NRD in your view?
MR. HOOD: Well, what changed with the NRD is we started -- when I went there in 1976 to Tecumseh, the staff for the NRD was very small. There was just a manager, the bookkeeper, by the name of Lola Panko, and a secretary, and then eventually, we did employ an assistant manager who is since deceased, Dave Nippert. And so we still operated on a shoestring, and that meant we did a lot of the work ourselves, rather than farm it out to additional staff members. So, since that time, I have observed that the staffing has greatly changed. It has increased.
MR. STARR: What about the board, itself, the evolution of the board over those 14 years and how their ideas and interest changed? What's your view there?
MR. HOOD: Well, the -- when I started with the natural resource district, the board of 21 was primarily, not 100 percent, but very dominant rural. They were farmers from within the eight-county area. And I've seen it change over time, more urbanized members coming on board and seeing the districts expand out going from primarily rural activities, conservation activities, to working more with the cities and the towns and the urban areas and working with the natural resource district board of directors and going into the new area of recreation and having such as the recreation lakes like Kirkman's Cove and the other projects there within the natural resource district. So, it changed and as far as from the rural orientation to broadening their scope going into a much larger arena.
MR. STARR: How were the board members willing to, you know, make the change to go to new things that they weren't used to, like recreation and those other things?
MR. HOOD: What was that? I'm sorry.
MR. STARR: I was asking, how did the -- what was the board's view of making change to go to things like recreation as compared to what they'd been used to?
MR. HOOD: I would have to say, very cautiously. They -- for some board members, that was going a little -- it took a while for adjustments and to recognize that the area of conservation was more than just working with agricultural lands. So, it -- there was definitely a transition period in which -- but I think, as a whole, the board generally very well accepted it and moved forward and expanded their horizons.
MR. STARR: As you, I'm sure, were well aware, Don, the Nemaha area was the area of the state where there was the most opposition to the forming of the NRDs and the passing of the law back in '69, '70, '72 era. How did that play out for you or how did you experience that level of opposition?
MR. HOOD: It made the task very challenging. And it -- a lot of the opposition, initially, was prior to my time being with the natural resource district. And so, I would have to say that it made Nemaha NRD sort of special in my mind, and that to make the change and to make the adjustments recognizing the NRDs was the way to go in the future, because, yes, they were initially one of the, if not the most, I don't know, but one of the most in opposition to join with the natural resource district concept. So, I would say this. It was challenging and it took a lot of work in order to convince the board members to expand their horizons and that the natural resource district was the way to go instead of staying with the old soil and water conservation districts. But there was definitely some mixed feelings about that from some of the board members.
MR. STARR: One of the things that I know you had to do was to keep separate track of all of the funds that came out of those various districts and spend it in those areas. Is that a challenge for the board and you and the bookkeeper?
MR. HOOD: Well, it was a part of that transition, and, yes, it was challenging, because a lot of the old boards from the soil and water conservation districts really were very reluctant to let their funds get out of their grasp from their old district, that soil and water conservation district. So, yes, it was -- I would say one of our accomplishments was to get them to cooperate with each other and recognize that they all together had a mission. And the mission was not just for local areas. It was for the entire area of the NRD.
MR. STARR: Based on your experience down there in Tecumseh and what you heard from the various directors, what were the primary reasons why they were opposed to the NRDs?
MR. HOOD: Well, the primary reason was they just did not want to let their particular objectives for their local districts be joined together. They wanted to maintain their old identity and try to keep the soil and water conservation objective and goals foremost in their minds rather than a joint effort to work together with the other -- all 21 directors. So it was -- primarily, they wanted was to retain their own identity, retain their own projects, retain their own goals and objectives, and not necessarily expand. And so, that part was challenging in order to make those changes come about.
MR. STARR: When you left the NRD for -- did you have still some of the old directors that were in the beginning or did the board faces change quite a bit?
MR. HOOD: I would say we still had a few board members -- I really can't remember exactly how many, but we had a few of the board members that were still on boards that were there when I joined the natural resource district. But we had some new ones and generally, the new ones that came on board added to the harmony and workings to get everyone working together as a team, as far as a whole NRD area, as a whole. So, yes, there was still some of those old former board members still on hand. We lost a few of them from when I first went there, but generally there were some and they became very good board members working for the total district.
MR. STARR: One of the things that had to be done at the first was to consolidate the resources of all of the various districts. And I know that took some time and probably hadn't been done by the time you got there. Was that a challenge to work on that?
MR. HOOD: Well, somewhat. Yes, some of them did not want to turn loose with the funds that they had gathered, and so, we did keep a lot of the individual funds separated. But as a whole, they were still -- some of those funds that were kept separated were then somewhat dedicated toward land rights for the watershed project that were located within their area. And so, eventually, those funds were used up because of the fact as we did end up -- I think, if I recall, over 380, I believe, watershed dams and projects -- or watershed structures built. And so, some of those funds were used for maintenance as well as for land rights, but generally with the cost of land rights going up all the time, it did not take very long for those funds to become used up that were originally secured by the old SWCD.
MR. STARR: In your tenure down there, what was the most challenging thing you had to do?
MR. HOOD: Oh, wow. I'm not sure I can pinpoint any one particular item the most challenging, but I would have to say probably just working with the 21 board members and the watershed program was probably the biggest challenge that we had going. And then, getting the watershed program, which we also included, starting some recreational areas as part of the PL 566 watershed program. So, there was a lot of challenges. I'm not sure I could really pick one other than the watershed program being the primary -- one of the major activities that we were involved with.
MR. STARR: Did you do the negotiations for the easements and rights-of-way for the various structures or did somebody else do that?
MR. HOOD: The acquiring of the land rights was, basically, was handled within the staff. In other words, it was -- the assistant manager or myself were most of us working on it. So, we did not really farm out the acquisition of land rights to anyone or any organization or business other than getting necessary appraisals. But otherwise, the land rights acquisition was pretty well handled in-house.
MR. STARR: During that 14 years, there were some changes in the state law that affected the NRDs and some issues that came up new. Did Nemaha get involved in any of those or were those issues that you didn't worry about?
MR. HOOD: Well, there was changes that always occurred, and, you know, there was changes that were -- came about by result of the State Natural Resource Commission with the development funds. And so, there was always changes that occurred, and we just worked with them as best we could as they came about to affect us. But we, at that time, you know, when we were developing the groundwater management plan and things like that, but -- so, yes, there was always changes that came about. That was one thing the natural resource district always did get involved with a lot of different programs and activities other than those that I've already mentioned. So, we just worked with them the best we could when we did.
MR. STARR: If memory serves me correct, the biggest change during that time period in terms of authority was the Groundwater Management Act. I don't know how much that impacted you as opposed to some of the more heavily irrigated areas.
MR. HOOD: That really did not have that much effect on the Nemaha NRD at that time. Now, whether that's over the years since I left has become a major activity for the Nemaha, I don't know. But at that time, most of our areas was pretty well considered dry land, row crop farming, and there was not really that much irrigation going on in the district except in just a couple localized areas. So, we were not as heavily involved in the groundwater management program from that perspective as was some of the other districts in the state of Nebraska.
MR. STARR: Was there any pressure for the NRD to get involved in any of the rural water districts that were in that area and might have been in that area?
MR. HOOD: Not at that time. The rural water districts were pretty well organized early in the game and probably really before I even joined the natural resource district. So, we were not really involved, because we already had ongoing rural water districts in progress.
MR. STARR: There were at least some areas in the Nemaha where there were issues with domestic water quality and domestic water quantity, as far as that goes. Was that ever a factor for you?
MR. HOOD: Not really, not at that time. It may have perhaps in a sense, but at that time, no, it was not really something that really came to the forefront with our district.
MR. STARR: Going back to the opposition, this may be a question you don't want to answer, but were there some things that happened that caused you to have some real heartburn over issues?
MR. HOOD: Well, we still had some people, like I said, really did not want to join in with the board as a whole. They wanted to just -- they wanted to work only on their own local areas from which they originally were the SWCD board members. And so, it took some work in order to be able to convince them to -- that we're working together and that the district was going to address their problems as well as everyone else's problems. But some of them still wanted to work only on projects that they were initially involved with, particularly in Otoe County. But that changed with time. So, we were -- I felt we were able to get them all on board, all of them working together, and, yeah, while they still had some left for their particular location, they worked together as a board, ultimately.
MR. STARR: I interviewed Gerald Royal last week one day and I assume you remember Gerald, or at least you remember Herman Royal.
MR. HOOD: Oh, yes.
MR. STARR: And I asked Gerald about how his father, Herman Royal, felt about things at the beginning, and he said, “Well,” he said, “Dad was pretty much in favor of the NRDs, but he didn't say much, because he knew that the majority was of the other opinion.” And he said that Herman was very happy to have someone with deeper pockets and would take over the negotiation of easements. He was involved in the Upper Little Nemaha Watershed, which is all completed now.
MR. HOOD: Right.
MR. STARR: And so --
MR. HOOD: And that's true. And we still had a few board members that, particularly in the very southeast corner, that liked to get involved with the negotiations and so, like I said, it was a challenge working with the board. But when you work with 21 individuals, some of them have pretty strong opinions that are sometimes easy to change and sometimes they're a little more challenging.
MR. STARR: Did you, during your time there, did you have any real significant controversies on the board, you know, real divisions of what you should do or what you should not do?
MR. HOOD: Gayle, I really felt good about working with that board. I had some mixed aspirations as far as what it was going to be like working with 21 board members, but it was -- I really actually felt quite well that I was able to work with them and I felt that I had them very well going forward and working together. And I was real pleased with the way it turned out. And I felt very good with the way the board was when I left.
MR. STARR: Well, Don, I've about run out of questions here. Is there anything else that you would like to add of your recollections, remembrances, or experiences up here?
MR. HOOD: Oh, gee, not really, Gayle. You caught me by total surprise tonight.
MR. STARR: Well, that's okay.
MR. HOOD: So, you know, I might think of something later, but no, I feel I gave you a pretty fair rundown of the way the things were when I was there.
MR. STARR: Very good. Well, I sure appreciate you taking part and helping us out.