Dean Graff

Position Held: Manager, KBR Soil & Water Conservation District, 1968 - 1972; Assistant Manager and Manager, Middle Niobrara NRD

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Middle Niobrara


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's November 1st, 2013. I'm in Ainsworth, Nebraska, talking with Dean Graff. Dean, would you want to just kind of give us a little background on your history and what all you did, and then how long you were involved with the NRD and that sort of thing.

MR. GRAFF: Well, I been kind of close to conservation for several years. My dad was one of the original board members, promoters of the KBR Soil Conservation District, which includes three counties, Keya Paha, Brown, and Rock, at that time. So, I was aware of the organization and things as time went on. And then I kind of got drifted off doing other things. Got married, of course, went to Omaha, worked in the stockyards a couple of years. City life wasn't for me, this old country boy.

MR. BARR: Where were you from, originally?

MR. GRAFF: Right here.

MR. BARR: Okay.

MR. GRAFF: Born ten miles north of Johnstown. And then I worked for the U.S. -- after I got married, I worked up here for the Agriculture Department, (indiscernible) Agriculture, measuring land, measuring corn, for corn loans. Farm program, could be in the early '60s, we had to measure about every field in the county, three-county area. I mean, actually did. A lot of them we had to walk them, because they could back up, take -- some of them had been into grass for years, so we kind of had to use our imaginations (indiscernible). That was the -- what did they call that originally?

MR. BARR: Soil --

MR. GRAFF: I can't remember.

MR. BARR: The CCC was Commodity Credit Corporation, the Soil Bank, and Idle Acres, and I don't remember. I measured some, too, when I was in high school and college in the summers. Had the chain and the stakes and all that sort of thing.

MR. GRAFF: It was all part of the total ag program.

MR. BARR: Right.

MR. GRAFF: It was coming into being as time went on there. And then the local district, local soil and water conservation, SWCD they was known as in them days. They organized and they decided they wanted a manager. So, I went and had a talk with them. My dad was not a director anymore, so that rules out any conflict. And I went to work for them in '68, somewhere along there. No. I got my dates -- my dates are not (indiscernible). And then shortly after -- I was there about two and a half years then the state come along and put in this new system of natural resource districts. Some of our districts were combined up here. It was pretty simple for most of the state, because they had watersheds. We had nothing up here. There was SWCD boards. Like you say, they were a bunch of jolly good fellows. They hardly knew what was going on, so we had no rules, no office procedures, no board rules, no nothing. Just started from scratch. The first manager, he didn't get along with them. When the district was formed, they kept me. I was manager here and he was manager of Valentine. Well, I could see I didn't dare go to Valentine and try to throw my weight around, intercity conflict. So I just kind of set back and they left me down here as assistant manager. Well, he got in trouble with his board up there and they fired him after about a year. So I just went up and told them I'd try it. I put in about, not quite 20 years, I guess. We had our conflicts, of course, of getting organized. Board assuming the responsibilities as put out by the Legislature through the Natural Resource Commission in Lincoln. They were our parent bosses.

MR. BARR: You had a local member that was on that board, didn't you?

MR. GRAFF: Yeah, Jim Cook, from Mills. There was a lot of conflicts of interest for a couple years. And as time -- I thought maybe as time went on, they'd wear off. But it took longer than I thought.

MR. BARR: What sort of conflicts?

MR. GRAFF: Well, they -- I had one director, he was on the old SWCD in Cherry County. And after about six, seven years as an NRD, he still had no idea, no concept of what was going on, no matter how much preaching they did. So, we had quite a learning (indiscernible) for all of us. We had taxing authority, so we did have responsibilities to the public, accountability. (indiscernible) district, Sandhills District at that time, a valuation was pretty low. We didn't hardly have enough money to operate on for the first five years.

MR. BARR: What sort of activities did you do those first few years?

MR. GRAFF: Well, at the prior to the onslaught of this changeover, the Cherry County Board had made contract with the telephone company to reseed, reestablish the sod. They buried a cable clear across the United States, remember that?

MR. BARR: Oh, yeah.

MR. GRAFF: That went right through here, went right south of town. The had a contract with them to reseed and (indiscernible). And we worked that for years, and we never did really accomplish it in Cherry County on account of Sandhills. There's no quick fix. So, after a while -- and then we gave -- as we learned more of the responsibilities, I got the board educated a little bit (indiscernible) that we were really not to be in conflict with local business, local contractors. So, we kind of went ahead and finished up what they had started under the previous manager. And then we sold some -- we had a Caterpillar and a loader, trucks, and we disposed of that property. Stuck with our tree planting, blowout control, planned grazing systems. We co-signed with the federal Soil Conservation Service on the grassland management. It was their program, but we had joint responsibilities. Erosion control, that was the main --

MR. BARR: Did you have quite a bit of blowout problem up here?

MR. GRAFF: Yeah. Cherry County's terrible. It's just -- from Valentine west, it's almost one big blowout. And that's -- when they (indiscernible). And they got -- then, as time when on, politics got involved on the Lincoln level with the Natural Resource Commission. Programs kind of somewhat changed and we sort of drifted along there for two or three years on our own. But we made our expenses along with what little tax money we had by working blowouts and planting trees and selling them, reseeding.

MR. BARR: Did you have any interrelationship with the irrigation district?

MR. GRAFF: Not really, no, just minor. They had hired local people to do their reseeding of the (indiscernible).

MR. BARR: I was trying to remember the name of the man that was in charge or staff person of the district.

MR. GRAFF: Manager Welch?

MR. BARR: Yeah, Welch.

MR. GRAFF: Harlan Welch. He still lives over here.

MR. BARR: Okay. He isn't still active in the district?


MR. BARR: I'm going to write that down. I've been trying to figure his name. Harlow, is it?

MR. GRAFF: Harlan. He had that ongoing war with the Legislature over some (indiscernible). I don't know how his board let him do what he did.

MR. BARR: Yeah, he was --

MR. GRAFF: I went with him a time or two down to hearing -- legislative hearings. After two trips, I decided that wasn't my (indiscernible).

MR. BARR: Now, did the district have any relationship with the proposed Norden Dam or was that outside of your district? I can't remember exactly.

MR. GRAFF: No, it was right over here, (indiscernible).

MR. BARR: Yeah, that's what I thought, yeah.

MR. GRAFF: We was pretty careful. The feelings were so evenly split over it. We tried to (indiscernible), tried to be neutral. I don't know if you -- you get in trouble -- maybe this is not for that, but you've been down to Butte?

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. GRAFF: You know what trouble a manager can get in?

MR. BARR: Oh, yeah, I remember that.

MR. GRAFF: I felt sorry for him. He was a nice guy. There was a gentleman that was over there at that time in Butte is now manager up here in Valentine.

MR. BARR: Oh, is that right?

MR. GRAFF: (Indiscernible).

MR. BARR: And that is --

MR. GRAFF: I can't say it.

MR. BARR: Okay, that's fine. I'll figure it out.

MR. GRAFF: I can't say his name.

MR. BARR: Yeah, I --

MR. GRAFF: And I've known him for years. That's part of getting old.

MR. BARR: I know. That's why I asked you about Harlan Welch. I couldn't remember his name.

MR. GRAFF: Alzheimer's kicking in real strong with me here.

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. GRAFF: We got some things going, watersheds being old, they still had a lot of political problems. And they couldn't (indiscernible). They had to get their two boards lined up on the same track. And we was starting new so we -- if we done something wrong, they expected it of us.

MR. BARR: Now, in terms of soil and water districts, was it just the two, KBR and Cherry County or was there more?

MR. GRAFF: No, there was -- the one down east, I don't know what they called the one down east.

MR. BARR: Oh, okay.

MR. GRAFF: On the other end of the Niobrara River.

MR. BARR: Yeah, okay.

MR. GRAFF: Holt County.

MR. BARR: Yeah, Holt County.

MR. GRAFF: They kind of had their own.

MR. BARR: Yeah, okay.

MR. GRAFF: They kind of had their own district. We had -- the original one here was Keya Paha, Brown, and Rock. We kept our Cat loader, Caterpillar crawler around a couple of years. We did a little blowout work. There was a lot of little nasty jobs not big enough to call a contractor in. And yet the (indiscernible) wanted it done. So, for a price, we did them.

MR. BARR: There was some irrigation development in the Sandhills. Did you end up getting involved in the reclamation of any of those when they were trying to quit irrigating them or --

MR. GRAFF: No, not really.

MR. BARR: How has the blowout -- when I was real young, I remember a lot of problems. Has that been kind of brought under control up here or is it still a pretty active problem?

MR. GRAFF: Well, it's pretty well under control, I should say. Two reasons. One was in the early years, we did go out and try to smooth it off. Lots of them reseeded. And the Soil Conservation Service found out. They come in with their graze -- planned grazing system. That was the biggest thing to help cure these blowouts. We really wasn't keeping up with our reseeding and mulching program. But there's a lot of ranchers didn't want to fence them. And you had to keep livestock out. But they come along with this planned grazing system and rotation certain times of year, was the biggest thing that cured a lot of these blowouts. There are blowouts around that are still active, and they always will be, because they're big. But it was a good program.

MR. BARR: Any other programs or projects or anything that you kind of want to mention?

MR. GRAFF: Well, I had the second project -- I think it was the second project after the Legislature authorized the state to cost share. Norfolk had the first one.

MR. BARR: Yep.

MR. GRAFF: Maskenthine. I got to be real good friends with -- well, what's his name, the manager?

MR. BARR: Steve Oltman.

MR. GRAFF: Steve, yeah, Oltman. Thank goodness all of his deals didn't brush off on me.


Him and I, we were good friends. On the start, he coached me in a lot of this stuff, big help to me. But I had the second project. It was over here on Plum Creek, Keya Paha County. The stream over there, the highway was coming through relocating Highway 12 crossing this creek. So, the local people out of Springview got to pushing it. They wanted a fish pond for their kids. So they came up to the district and got our endorsement. I went to the Commission and got some cost share funds to build the highway that would be -- serve as the dam across this creek. We made quite a little fish pond there for the kids, and still working great.

MR. BARR: Was that one of the first road dam structures in the state?

MR. GRAFF: Right. It was the second one.

MR. BARR: Okay, that's become --

MR. GRAFF: I might be wrong, but I think it was.

MR. BARR: That's become a pretty popular program, or, you know --

MR. GRAFF: And that was something that we could use and take care and get in on right quick, with the help of the State Commission. I got quite a little money through the Commission for structure stuff up here before the watersheds in the old districts really got their programs settled. And of course, once they got going, then they talked about millions of dollars and we talked about $20,000. So, we got pushed aside.

MR. BARR: How has the overall conservation situation changed from the time you were young until now? Anything you'd like to mention?

MR. GRAFF: Well, of course, we all know the tree planting program progressed as time went on. And the method of getting survival with the help of the college forestry and all them, we had different ways of getting better survival as time went on. We needed a lot of them out here and we did, we planted, oh, 150- to 160,000 trees here every year. We had a tree planting machine. We had mowing machines to take care of the weeds. And the biggest thing I that this part of the state was planned grazing systems, rotation grazing when they started moving these cattle certain times a year according to the grass that was there. We saw a vast improvement real quick in the pastures. And that helped the blowout situation considerable. We used to -- when they started them, you could walk out here in any pasture in the area and see bare sand between clumps. Now you don't do that. It's kind of hard nowadays to do that.

MR. BARR: How much use was the electric fence in this planned grazing system? Has that been used up here or is it pretty much regular fencing here?

MR. GRAFF: No, it has come on here lately, later years.

MR. BARR: But they had done quite a bit before.

MR. GRAFF: Oh, yeah. They cross-fenced some of the big pastures. In the olden days, you know, a rancher had one huge pasture in the summertime. They all went there. Then, of course, the windmills all happened to be blowouts. And another thing now, the biggest thing nowadays, of course, is sun power.

MR. BARR: Solar powered waterers?

MR. GRAFF: Solar powered. We have a rancher in Valentine where his wife is a United States Senator now.

MR. BARR: Oh, sure.

MR. GRAFF: We put a lot of trees out there on their ranch. And they did a lot of cross-fencing. They've piped water, miles and miles of pipeline now. And they use these solar heats, solar machines to run their wells, and they can use them to run their fences. (Indiscernible) they can divide a pasture and use about a third of it at a time or -- it's a big help in the management of the forage out there. And they got more knowledge, of course, on grass types, a variety of grasses. Some grass has more nutrients than other.

MR. BARR: Sure.

MR. GRAFF: And some of the sand, there's only certain varieties that will grow. I don't care what you do. Progress has been a big changeover.

MR. BARR: When you look at your boards, any other people involved in this, any other individuals that you think stood out in leadership or -- you mentioned Jim Cook as being on the State Commission.

MR. GRAFF: Yeah.

MR. BARR: Anybody else that had a role up in this area, a significant role?

MR. GRAFF: Well, Cherry County had some pretty active people. They had one Hereford breeder up there, raised purebred Herefords. He was real active in (indiscernible) rotation grazing and -- most of the ranchers bought into the program real -- it wasn't too hard to convince them something needed to be done, and they all kind of went along.

MR. BARR: About -- I can't remember where in the south side, where your district versus the, what would be Lower -- or Upper Loup. Would that be the one next to you? Roughly, where does that line run?

MR. GRAFF: Oh, it's --

MR. BARR: How much south of here, for instance?

MR. GRAFF: About 14 miles.

MR. BARR: Okay.

MR. GRAFF: Maybe not quite that far.

MR. BARR: I was just -- I couldn't remember exactly how far.

MR. GRAFF: It said they were laid out on hydrologic -- when the drainage goes to the -- up here, that's where the line went.

MR. BARR: Going west, roughly where do you -- where was the end of your district going west, about?

MR. GRAFF: West, Cherry County.

MR. BARR: Okay. Did you --

MR. GRAFF: Pretty big area.

MR. BARR: Yes, oh, yes. Very big area.

MR. GRAFF: I went from little ol' county like Brown and Rock.

MR. BARR: Well, Cherry's bigger than some states, isn't it?

MR. GRAFF: Yeah. North half of Cherry County and I had part of Brown, part of west part of Keya Paha, and a little bit of Rock. And, of course, that upset our board of directors. We had to reestablish all the voting districts.

MR. BARR: Oh, yeah.

MR. GRAFF: Quite a job to take a bunch of farmers and ranchers and put together a set of, what do I want to call them -- rules and regulations or board policies, -- board policies, district policies, employee policies, district manager's policies. See, we had nothing. I had to put all of them together and sell them to the -- sell them to some of these old ranchers was pretty hard to do.

MR. BARR: What's the board size now and what was the interim board, or do you remember on the interim board?

MR. GRAFF: The interim board was 17. I think -- it wasn't quite 17. Eleven.

MR. BARR: Okay.

MR. GRAFF: And we're down to nine.

MR. BARR: What -- as you saw this progress over the years, any -- not only in this district, but the district -- natural resource district, you worked with the other districts statewide, so what observations would you like to have on just the whole general idea of the natural resource districts, maybe as it compared to what you might have thought it was originally?

MR. GRAFF: Well, I think the concept was long overdue. Prior to that time, there were no avenue really for the protection of our resources. And thank goodness, there was enough minds in the state to look into the future and see that we had to get a long-term plan laid out and established. And the original districts, which were groundwater districts and some of them flood control districts, each one of them had their own (indiscernible), kind of got everything in one pot. You got it sorted out and headed down one road. I think that was the biggest. And it wasn't easy and it took a while to do it. In fact, my son's still on the board.

MR. BARR: Oh, okay.

MR. GRAFF: He's been on the board 20 years. I've been gone a little over that, I guess.

MR. BARR: That's right, it's about a 40-year -- it's about the 40th year next year, isn't it?

MR. GRAFF: I suppose it's going to be.

MR. BARR: '74 to '14, yep, that's going to be right at 40 --

MR. GRAFF: Actually, '62 -- '72 --

MR. BARR: Well, yeah, it was started and then the actual full elections were -- elected boards were '74, but, yeah, you're right.

MR. GRAFF: They couldn't have no elections for a couple of years.

MR. BARR: Right.

MR. GRAFF: And we had to put up with a vast number of boards, so, you know, not too much was accomplished.

MR. BARR: Some of them had 250 or more --

MR. GRAFF: Yeah. But as time went on, people saw the advantage and everybody pitched in and made it work. The Natural Resource Commission in Lincoln were as guilty as anybody else about following things. They got a couple of directors in there that after Dale Williams left that was pretty easily swayed and and some the special districts got to them. So, there was a down side there for a while until that got squared away. I think it's on a pretty forward track now. See, Niobrara River, we didn't have anything. We didn't have watersheds or nothing up there. So, everything was new up here.

MR. BARR: At this point, I guess, if you have anything you'd like to mention that -- this is your chance.

MR. GRAFF: No, I don't think so. No more than you would expect from melding certain boards together, groups together under a new set of laws which state obligations. We were under the directions of Natural Resource Commission through the Legislature with taxing authority, so we had responsibilities which the old districts really didn't have.

MR. BARR: One thing I thought about, back to the time when they were forming the legislation, do you remember who was the state legislators up here or some of the legislators that you've had that might have been involved with this? I was trying to think who was up here at that time.

MR. GRAFF: Oh, Cherry County. Low valuation to pay secretaries by, office equipment. We had to start paying directors, mileage, one thing and another, which before that they didn't. So, we had to get out and make some of our own money.

MR. BARR: What sort of things did you do to do that?

MR. GRAFF: With our tree programs, reseeding, mulching. We did some fencing of tree belts where it was difficult for anybody to get somebody to hire.

MR. BARR: Did you get involved in any fencing on planned grazing?


MR. BARR: Did SCS or NRCS get involved -- did they help pay for any of that or not?


MR. BARR: Did you have any state or federal money involved that you were able to locate for some of your projects? You mentioned the one from the state on the (indiscernible) Creek or --

MR. GRAFF: Yeah, I've had several state money projects. I one big one here north of Ainsworth, or out northwest of Ainsworth. This was road (indiscernible) in cooperation with the county out here. Done a lot -- got one north of the airport. That was a big project, probably the (indiscernible). It started with the runways. It drained all the runways on the airport. Went down that draw toward Plum Creek about ten miles northwest a little bit. And every year, more than once a year, the county lost a bridge, no way to keep it in, due to sand. I finally got the project through and we were able to build a road structure in that valley. The Soil Conservation approved the construction man's job, moved out. We got a rain that night, and that dam was full of water the next morning. Water was running out (indiscernible).

MR. BARR: Sometimes people would see the benefit pretty quickly, then, don't they.


MR. GRAFF: Yeah. I don't know how much better public relations (indiscernible) have.

MR. BARR: Was that in the early years or later on?

MR. GRAFF: Yeah. That was about the third project I did with the Commission. Wasn't too hard to get state money then, because the watersheds weren't ready, because they had to work out their deals with them (indiscernible). They already had programs ongoing that they had to finish. Those watersheds have been around a long time.

MR. BARR: Back was it, in the '30s or '40s they started. I can't remember.

MR. GRAFF: I don't know exactly. No, I enjoyed my work up there. The wages were terrible. I just could hardly make it the first four or five years.

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. GRAFF: But I thought enough of the project, the concept of it, I wanted to see the thing get going. So, I drove to Valentine every day.

MR. BARR: That's a fair-sized drive.

MR. GRAFF: I didn't think nothing of it. After a while, I got a son-in-law -- or a grandson in Omaha, and he drives 21 miles across Omaha to work mornings.

MR. BARR: My goodness.

MR. GRAFF: I'd a heck of a lot rather drive mine.

MR. BARR: Oh, yeah. You could probably go a little faster.

MR. GRAFF: Yeah. Hell, I've done it in 28 minutes.


People driving Omaha to Lincoln to work and Lincoln, they drive to Omaha to work.

MR. BARR: I remember Sidney has more employees than they do population, because they draw people from 50 to 60 miles around that drive into work there. Well, let's see, is there anything else you'd like to mention? I really appreciate you doing this.

MR. GRAFF: I don't know what the -- any special projects the district is working right now and got going. I try to stay away from it. My son, he was chairman of the board for --

MR. BARR: Oh, sure.

MR. GRAFF: I think he's still chair.

MR. BARR: Unless you've got something else --

MR. GRAFF: We got a lot of work done in 30 years of -- after they established the cost share fund with the Commission.

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. GRAFF: I don't know how many little dam structures I got. I think they've got about nine here and a dozen or so in Cherry County. We got a lot of erosion control done. Small, which you couldn't pull in a big (indiscernible).

MR. BARR: You mentioned one project where you pretty much stopped the water to build a dam. Did you have any other flood control situations in the district that you needed to deal with? Any particular flood structures?

MR. GRAFF: Yeah, that was the primary purpose of the one out west -- or east of town here. The county suffered umpteen dollars' damage every year, regardless, and each rain just wiped her out.

MS. GRAFF: You getting it all talked over what you don't remember?

MR. BARR: Well, he's remembered quite a bit.

MR. GRAFF: This is my wife.

MR. BARR: Okay, good to meet you.