David Landis

Position Held: Board Member, SWCD, 1972 - 1978; Nebraska State Senator, 1978 - 2006; Director, Urban Development, City of Lincoln, 2006 - Present; Board Member, Lower Platte South NRD

Interviewer: Ann Bleed

Associated NRDs:

Lower Platte South


MS. BLEED: This is February 19th, and I'm here -- I'm Ann Bleed and I'm here with Dave Landis, who was a legislator, I believe, at the time that the NRD districts were established.


MS. BLEED: Is that incorrect? Okay.

MR. LANDIS: That is incorrect. I was a member of the Soil and Water Conservation District.

MS. BLEED: All right.

MR. LANDIS: And was part of one of the organizations that was melded into the NRDs. I served on the NRD for about -- I was elected to the county Soil and Water Conservation District that merged into the NRD. I ran for the NRD, but was beaten by a guy out in the area, but he, then, resigned almost upon taking office because of his lack of attention span and didn't feel comfortable doing the work, so they appointed me because I was the other name on the ballot and had done well, but not won, so they put me on. And I served up the end of that term, which then moved into the election of the Legislature. I served, probably for six years in this area before I won election in 1978 to the Legislature.

MS. BLEED: And then you served in the Legislature for how many years?

MR. LANDIS: Twenty-eight years.

MS. BLEED: Twenty-eight years and you're now with the City of Lincoln.


MS. BLEED: But you were on the Soil and Water Conservation Board/NRD for six years?

MR. LANDIS: That would be right.

MS. BLEED: So, you were there when the first idea came up.

MR. LANDIS: Almost conterminous with the election to the Soil and Water Conservation District was Maurice Kremer's successful initiative. You didn't know that you were going to merge into the NRD. I thought I had a four-year term. But shortly thereafter, the election -- I'm sorry, the legislation was successful and it took multiple elements on the ballot and merged them. The very first NRDs had 50 to 60 members. And they had them because they were all the pre-existing memberships were not culled, but simply moved into an NRD director status until the election process could get it down to the statutory number that was authorized at the time. So, we had six months to a year of meetings with 55 members of the board.

MS. BLEED: Wow. What was the discussion before the -- during the time that the legislation was being proposed and discussed? What were some of the issues that you encountered as being discussed?

MR. LANDIS: Probably two ideas; issues that were generally in the field, or issues about NRDs?

MS. BLEED: Both.

MR. LANDIS: There were two persuasive arguments by the proponents of the NRDs at the distance of which I was observing them by reading the paper (indiscernible) first. Hydrological problems do not fall along political subdivision lines as any of them were drafted at that point. And that we needed to give authority for this kind of regulation to river basin boundaries, not county boundaries. That was the Lancaster County Soil and Water Conservation District. Now, there was a Salt Valley Watershed, but the Salt Valley Watershed was just a part of a larger hydrological reality. What didn't -- what we didn't have was a system that reflected hydrological realities. It reflected pre-existing political subdivision loyalties and boundaries. So that was argument number one. And I think the second thing was that we had fragmented elements of a larger reality. We were doing soil erosion control in the Soil and Water Conservation District. We were doing farm ponds. The Salt Valley Watershed was doing water retention and flood control. Well, flood control, soil erosions, water quality bear an interrelated environmental reality. So, not only did we have fragmented geographical boundaries, we had fragmented disciplines, if you will, in the regulation. The whole point of the NRD was to reflect environmental reality instead of political reality.

MS. BLEED: Was there any opposition to the formation of the NRDs from --

MR. LANDIS: The fear, I think, generally was that NRDs might become captured by urban areas. That when you have counties and they would organize -- remember that this is a place where Baker versus Carr and one man, one vote was gradually transforming American political culture. But if there wasn't a Baker versus Carr challenge, you had systems that were operating that gave favoritism on geographic bases. And there was a concern that what should be the farmers' business would get taken over by city folk. So, there was that concern in the background.

MS. BLEED: And if I remember correctly, it was not a one person, one vote distribution of the elect -- when you were electing board members.

MR. LANDIS: That's right. What happened is, they actually met one man, one vote by allowing everybody to vote -- everybody, initially, to vote for the subdivision, but you had to come from a subdivision. So, if you put subdivisions in rural areas, but let all the voters vote on that rural subdivision, you ensure that they'll be farmers, even though they might be elected from the whole area.

MS. BLEED: Right.

MR. LANDIS: It was a way of making sure we had farmer control. That gradually wrested away.

MS. BLEED: Yeah, the League of Women Voters, I remember, filed a lawsuit, which they didn't win, but now it is --

MR. LANDIS: And at the same time, I made a motion inside the NRD to move that so that the goal of the League of Women Voters and the internal motion to change our practices, which met with, I think, almost universal opposition, except for maybe one or two votes other than my own, and then moved to the Legislature where I think Chris Beutler had a significant (indiscernible) those alterations, as I recall.

MS. BLEED: And now, of course, our district does its nomination by sub-district and vote by sub-district on the one population basis.

MR. LANDIS: Uh-huh.

MS. BLEED: So, you weren't at all involved in any of the legislative discussions at the time.

MR. LANDIS: No, this was -- I was at the tail end, as I recall, of the one person, one vote controversy in the Legislature. But we were four or five years into the NRD phenomenon by that point.

MS. BLEED: And getting back to your discussion on the board itself was the basic reason that people didn't follow your motion because they wanted to make sure the landowners had significant impact?

MR. LANDIS: Yeah, as if this was -- and I choose the word carefully when I say, sort of a gentlemen's agreement. I use the gender choice on purpose. They were all men, and it was like a sort of a -- well, this is a fair division of the spoils of politics. We have to recognize our (indiscernible) brothers. And, for example, in the Soil and Water Conservation District, we would ask for and secure permission from farmers to go onto their land to do certain kinds of measurements, hydrological and soil testing. Having a board filled with farmers was much easier to get farmer compliance to letting the soil and water conservation -- so they had examples of where farmer-to-farmer conversations had a real world value to it.

MS. BLEED: Yeah.

MR. LANDIS: And, you know, it's like, well, sure there's that Constitution thing, but, you know, this is a coffee klatch and we all have to be able to get along, to go along. Well, that was -- that carried over into the first couple of terms of the NRD and gradually worked its way out.

MS. BLEED: And when you were whittling down from the 50 or 60 board members to the 21, I assume it was 21.

MR. LANDIS: I think it's unchanged.

MS. BLEED: It's unchanged from that time. Was that a contentious process?

MR. LANDIS: Well, you had people who had previous positions who were placed in competition for NRD positions, but you also had a lot of people who said, “Fine. I didn't mind my little area of the world,” -- you know, there were four or five of these conservation districts because they were by county. But they didn't have the desire to run for an office, you know, like this. And so, the whittling out did not come, I think, with hard feelings, political survivors being stalked by people who lost and came and shared their bad blood or went to the letters to the editor or anything like that. This was a down-ballot issue. Initially, there was almost no campaigning. It was by word of mouth and name recognition. It was what the New Englanders call standing for election. Stood up see how many votes -- how many else raise their hands and fine. You know, one third of the State of New Hampshire serves in their legislature at any given time. It was sort of that quality of, you know, this is a down-ballot issue and if people know you well enough, you'll be on, and if they don't, then you don't.

MS. BLEED: And there weren't too many people then, opposing the NRD formation, itself.

MR. LANDIS: No. Remember that there was -- Earth Day preceded the NRD. Environmental sensibilities preceded the NRDs so that there was a natural environmental area for cities saying, “Well, this is really a good idea. You know, natural resources, got to be careful about those.” And in the farm areas, I think that they were, you know, if there was a steady flow of assistance and resources and maybe some tax dollars, for which I think they saw themselves as the immediate beneficiaries as the stewards of the land, we'll have more terracing. We'll have more ponds on our farms. And we'll largely be in control of these resources. So, who was there that was, you know, left out and wronged by that? It was, at least to my recollection, essentially without controversy or rancor.

MS. BLEED: That's good to hear. Is there anything else you think should be added to a historical perspective on this?

MR. LANDIS: Is it about this NRD or is it just the NRD process generally?

MS. BLEED: NRD process generally. Or both.

MR. LANDIS: The work in this area was dominated by a strong, forceful general manager, Hal Schroeder. Hal was, I believe, a military man, a tall man with a considerable presence. And I just remember that the first three or four years, you know, we'd all talk, then we'd look down at Hal to see what Hal's reaction was to things. He had a good political sense. He handled people well. There was not arrogance here, but there was a forcefulness in which he just dominated the work of the NRD. And Bob Crosby was the legal counsel.

MS. BLEED: And who is Bob Crosby?

MR. LANDIS: Bob Crosby, former governor.

MS. BLEED: He was one of the youngest governors, right?

MR. LANDIS: Well, he was governor in the early '50s. This is now 20 years later. So, he's a hugely respected former governor, lobbyist, and lawyer, practicing lawyer, a man of just impeccable charm, and also good thinking skills. It meant that leadership came from staff (indiscernible). We also came with 55 people who didn't know each other. So, that happened. Over time, I think the board has gradually become to have more independence of -- use the staff more. Although, I think we have a heavy reliance on staff, very heavy reliance on staff. But in our own case, we have a very -- Hal picked Glen as his assistant. Glen has a deferential quality that I think we all appreciate. Hal, if you asked him a question, would say, “Well, yes, da-da-da-dum.” “Okay, all in favor, say aye.” And we did, overwhelmingly. Anyway, he had a very salubrious, good quality. I mean, he ran people together. He ran a good organization. It was good leadership. There was some camaraderie in this organization. There was a great deal of respect for him. He built a good staff. So, in this area, Hal, I think, carries a big part of the credit for creation of the NRD. So, anyway, that's the one piece I had. Anything else?

MS. BLEED: I don't think so. If you have nothing else to add, thank you so much.

MR. LANDIS: I think who you'd really like to have is somebody was maybe, what, in the Legislature when the NRD was passed so you could --

MS. BLEED: Well, there is a whole number of interviews going on. Is there anyone you think we should --

MR. LANDIS: Well, we can't do Maurice Kremer, but I wouldn't pass up the chance to talk to his son, Bob. Bob served in the Legislature, and Bob would have been of an age that when Maurice was doing this work, he would have been a young man. He wouldn't have been a boy. He was a man. So, he would have been following what his dad was doing. And my impression is, I think they farmed together. I think. And if they did, I bet there's some time on the tractor when they're talking to each other and Bob could give you a pretty darn clear read on what Maurice was up to.