Tony Vrana

Position Held: Technician, Associate Deputy Chief Administrator, SCS; Chief, Planning Division, NRC, 1980 - 1988; Executive VP, Soil & Water Conservation Society, 1989 - 1991; Board Member, Upper Big Blue NRD

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Upper Big Blue


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's July 26th, 2013. I am in Seward, Nebraska, interviewing Tony Vrana about soil and water conservation districts and the formation of the natural resource districts. To begin with, Tony, could you just give a little background, your background and your origins and development up through now, I guess, or whatever?

MR. VRANA: Okay, Jim. Well, it's a long story and I'll try and brief it down a little bit. But I grew up on a farm north of Garland in what we call affectionately the Bohemian Alps. Graduated from Garland High School. This was at the time of World War II. And I farmed with my folks for a couple years, couple, three years, and then went to work for the Soil Conservation Service in the Department of Agriculture in the spring of 1948 as a technician. I went on permanently with the agency then in that fall, that August, and worked here in Seward as a conservation technician for 10 years. I had gotten involved in the last year or two in the watershed program, PL566, and was a construction inspector for one of the first dams built in the Middle Creek -- or Oak Mill watershed. And then transferred to Lincoln in the summer of '58 and was on full time as far as inspecting watershed dams in the Lincoln area. Then I worked in watershed planning for a while and got into an administrative trainee program through the national office and spent a year in that training, and at the completion of that had made a commitment to go anywhere that they may wish to transfer me, which was to Washington, D.C., which was a surprise. So I worked in the personnel division from '62 and finished my college degree and went on and got an MBA at George Washington University and became the director of the personnel division in '72. Then went on to later become the assistant administrator for management and eventually the associate deputy chief for administration. Retired in 1980, came back to Nebraska to work for the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission as chief of the planning division. Worked with Dale Williamson and company for about eight and a half years or so. We were farming at the same time and I was very active in the Soil and Water Conservation Society. So after a few months of farming almost on a full-time basis and going on a six-week trip to Alaska I took on the position of executive vice president for the Soil and Water Conservation Society over at Ankeny, Iowa. I was in that for about three years.

MR. BARR: About what year did that start?

MR. VRANA: This would have been from '89 through '91, I guess. And then following that I decided it was time to retire so we moved back to Seward here. We had already had a house in town and we had sold the farm by then. And coming back to Seward here I was on the Upper Big Blue NRD Board. In fact, I had been on the NRD Board at the time I left to go to Ankeny and had to resign from that. But I ran for the board again then when I came back and never got elected. And so I got involved with city government. Continued to be actively involved with Soil and Water Conservation Society. But then I got involved with the city as far as being on the city council, which I spent 12 years at. And now I'm to the point where I am basically retired. I completed my tenure with the city just a year or so ago. I'm still on the Cattle Bank Board and active, involved with Kiwanis and the church, of course. But we are just enjoying growing old.

MR. BARR: Back to your initial experiences with the Soil Conservation Service -- I've got to keep everything straight here -- when the original -- well, you know the history of the origination of the soil and water conservation districts, about when it was a little bit of the history of it. I haven't had anybody cover that yet. Would you be able to kind of give a short overview of how they developed and who was kind of involved in setting it up and that sort of thing?

MR. VRANA: I'm not sure yet where the idea came from. Hugh Hammond Bennett, of course, gets a lot of credit for working with President Roosevelt and getting the soil erosion agency established in the Department of Interior. I forget the name of the secretary of agriculture who was instrumental in getting it moved over to agriculture. But the thing that really seemed to make a difference with SCS moving from working with the CC camp people and demonstrations farms was the origination of the soil conservation districts. And when we moved back -- when I got back to D.C. there in '62, an attorney by the name of Phil Glick (phonetic) was still around as an elderly gent and he was very highly respected as the author of that original soil conservation district law. And it was through those efforts that we got districts established on a county level throughout the country that really provided the framework in which the Soil Conservation Service technicians could work with local farmers in applying conservation treatment to the land.

MR. BARR: What period did -- I know it probably took several years to develop it, but when did it kind of start and how long did it kind of take to get these districts organized?

MR. VRANA: World War II had quite an impact on that because I think the district law was passed in about '38. But because of things being devoted almost 100 percent to the war effort for about five years there, districts didn't become widespread really until after the war. Here in our local county, for instance, I think that we had three townships in the original district probably in about '43 or '44. But it wasn't until after the war I believe that the whole county was brought in and they evolved rather slowly but pretty methodically after the war.

MR. BARR: Could you just give kind of an overview of a typical county soil and water conservation district, how it was organized, whether there were board members, staff, how it was financed, any of that sort of thing, if there were -- the sort of projects or efforts that they undertook? We have talked about them in other interviews but we have never really focused on what a district did. And maybe I'm being unfair to ask you this question but --

MR. VRANA: Well, no, you're not unfair but I'm probably a little unprepared to really go into it in great detail. But each state had to write a state law that would provide for them. And within that framework then a certain percentage of, I believe it was landowners in any identified area, had to be in favor. I believe it was restricted to the landowners in that district. In Seward County here there were five supervisors and we had the benefit of having one lady, Mrs. Jones, as one of the initial supervisors. And at that time I believe the story was that she was the only one in the United States that was a woman. But she was a large landowner and she and her family were very committed to soil and water conservation and a very good board member. But the board members were looked upon as disciples, I guess you would say, in promoting soil conservation practices. And back in those days, even as I came on to work in '48, our job was probably more promotion than what it was actually technical work. And the supervisors played a large role in that. We would have field days. We would have different events at country schools. One of my fellow technicians and I wrote a little three act play that we put on and invited all of the farmers in that school district to come to that play and we had taken pictures of their farms and stuff that we also showed and it was a great night. We accomplished a lot really through those sorts of fun events. And we also tied it closely, you know -- soil stewardship was mighty important in those days. The supervisors were, for the most part, very devoted Christians and looked upon the earth as the Lord's and the fullness thereof. And so stewardship was mighty important and a real talking point in working with farmers to convince them that the soil wasn't theirs to lose. So that is part of it.

MR. BARR: Okay. Now if you were going to do a project that involved money, how would you -- what would be the source of any sort of funds or sources?

MR. VRANA: We were, of course, in those days working on the farm type practices and there was cost share through the ASCS office or terrace construction and dam building and other conservation practices. And really that was the source of financial assistance.

MR. BARR: What was the program at the national level? Was that the same one that Carrs and Whitman had done or was that a program that developed later? I can't remember the exact name of it, the cost share program, prior to the current type program. I remember Jamie Whitman was a big supporter of it. Whether he was an author of it, I don't know.

MR. VRANA: I really don't know, but I expect Jamie Whitman was because he was our banker as far as when I got back to D.C. in '62, when we had hearings before the House appropriations subcommittee, which Whitman chaired, he was a very strong advocate and he would tell the same story every year, you know, about how important it was to get this done. And, interestingly, we among us in the agency talked about that as much good as he did for us, we didn't think he ever really understood districts. He really usually always talked about ACP payments.

MR. BARR: ACP, that was the program.

MR. VRANA: Uh-huh.

MR. BARR: That was Agriculture --

MR. VRANA: Agriculture Conservation Program.

MR. BARR: But what he did understand was how to organize political support for farming.

MR. VRANA: Sure, well, yeah.

MR. BARR: And that part of the program he understood quite well.

MR. VRANA: Yeah.

MR. BARR: Well, anything else about the conservation districts that you might want to comment on in general before -- and then the predecessors in Nebraska to the natural resource districts. And then I don't know how much you were involved at the time but any observations that you might have about this process of developing a combination of special purpose districts into natural resource districts? Any observations you might have from the national office as to how that was regarded at the time?

MR. VRANA: Well, that's quite an assignment. I don't know whether I will remember all those questions or not. But let me talk a little bit about these original supervisors because the voting for the supervisors was done through -- we had ballot boxes scattered around at different locations. And I remember distinctly of one day driving around and picking up the ballots, you know, from different places. And I don't remember for sure. I think nominations were accepted by just about anyone that wanted to nominate someone. So it wasn't hard to get nominations. But for the most part there would be a very low ballot turnout. But the people elected were for the most part not only committed to conservation but respected in their communities. One of the interesting things was the relationship between the district conservationists, the head guy in the county where their districts were, and the selection of the board members. Theoretically, they were just supposed to be completely hands off. But in one instance, after I retired I heard about this state conservationist that advised this young D.C., he says, now I don't ever want to hear about you influencing one of these elections, but I don't ever want to find out that you're not. I don't know whether that was an unwritten policy, but I think it was rather typical of how you needed to be involved in local relationships enough to see that the right people got nominated. I'm sure that once the nominations were in everything was 100 percent above board. But I have been amused by that because I think that happens in quite a few areas.
Now what was the next question?

MR. BARR: Well, at some point I was going to talk -- see if you had any thoughts on the combination of the soil and water conservation districts with other special purpose districts in Nebraska into natural resource districts, both in the development of the original legislation and then as it developed into practice.

MR. VRANA: You almost have to have a feeling for the -- and, again, I'll go back to this stewardship commitment that existed for soil conservation practices back in the '40s and '50s. And it seemed like that the people that were involved with the agency and with the districts at that time were so committed to that conservation of the soil that they really didn't look as broadly as what might have been appropriate. And when it became necessary to incorporate these other districts it was, as I would interpret it at least, it was looked upon as a dissolution of their duties. And, consequently, people were being elected to districts, supervisor, or I should say to the NRD boards on a general election basis. So there was the closeness between the agency and the NRD managers or the NRD program had separated substantially. You had people being elected to boards that while they may have been interested in soil conservation, it was certainly not their passion or their priority as it was on the old district boards. And so from the standpoint of efficiency and government, it was probably looked upon as a good thing, but from the standpoint of carrying out this sacred mission of the Soil Conservation Service, it was probably a deterrent.

MR. BARR: Was there any significant involvement of the agency in the discussions of this sort of program, the proposed program and your -- I'm just fishing.

MR. VRANA: Yeah. From my perspective, as director of personnel, I got in on a lot of discussion, but it was only in Nebraska. Nebraska is one of 50 states. And it wasn't a big thing in my mind.

MR. BARR: Speaking on that, do you have any thoughts on why it might have happened in Nebraska and doesn't -- has never happened anywhere else?

MR. VRANA: Well, that's interesting. But, of course, we and Maine are the only ones that have the unicameral and the nonpartisan legislature. And so we are a bit unique here in Nebraska, but I must say that as I became familiar with the NRD, particularly after having served on the NRD Board over at York, and as I became executive director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, I went to quite a bit of effort on a national basis of trying to encourage NRDs elsewhere. And I remember very well at a meeting in Washington, D.C., during the time -- it would have probably been in about '91 and Jerry Vap was the NRD president at that time. And I had gotten a little hot in the discussion and Jerry took me aside and he says, Tony, you've got to realize that we're not going to force the rest of these states to take NRDs. They've got to want it. But I remember that very distinctly.

MR. BARR: I guess while we're talking about your time at the Soil and Water Conservation Society, did you get involved in any particular legislation or what sort of a role did you have when you were there? I guess maybe that's the other question.

MR. VRANA: Well, the 1980 farm bill -- 1985 farm bill was landmark legislation. There's no question about it. Probably one of the most important farm bills for conservation that we have ever had. And the timing was such that I came on board over there at the time there was already an assignment that had been made for a special study on looking at the effectiveness of the legislation. It was a very controversial thing. And my loyalties to the Soil Conservation Service were still very strong. I had grown up in the SCS family, even though I had worked for the state of Nebraska, and in working for the state those years certainly my perspective of SCS was broadened. I realized they weren't always right. But by the time I got over to Ankeny and saw what I thought was some questionable efforts to try to demean some of the things that the agency was doing, I had a little rough time. And the roughness really came about by some people involved on the special study that was trying to determine how effective SCS was in implementing the regulations. Some of those folks thought that bingo, just like internal revenue, you know, when you pass a law, by golly, everything has to be done 100 percent the moment the law is passed. And I guess that going back to my early days where we worked and pleaded and prayed with farmers to get them to do things right, that wasn't my way of doing things. And so, consequently, there was some dissension among the troops over there as to what kind of a report would come out on the agency's efforts to carry out the law. And I suppose maybe that was one reason I didn't stay over there longer than I did. I didn't have to tolerate that.

MR. BARR: Just looking back on your involvement in conservation over the years and up to now, how would you evaluate the flow of activity in relation to conservation, say from the time of the '30s and the depression up to now? I mean, that's not a fairly simple question.

MR. VRANA: Yeah, that gives me quite a bit of room. Jim, out at the golf course this morning we went past a field of corn. It was right adjacent to the course. It's the 26th day of July. We had 40-hundredths of rain here the other day. We had 60-hundredths a week or so ago. We haven't had much rain this summer. That corn was beautiful. The ears are setting on, you know. The husks are -- the silks are drying already, you know. The kernels are set. How well they will fill depends on what we get here in the next week or so. But when I think of that and then reflect back on the way people farmed and the crops that we had back in the '30s, it's a difference of night and day. And I think that -- as I told the fellow I was riding with this morning, you know, that corn looks so great and it's largely because of the conservation tillage. Certainly it's a part of the genetics of the corn. But it has made so much difference in the way in which -- soil erosion is in Seward County I would say very minimal. And I think throughout the country it's no longer the concern that it was. And one of the things that you worry about a little bit is I hear stories of people becoming complacent, thinking they need to go back to doing some plowing and that sort of thing. And so you always worry about those sorts of things. But I think we have made tremendous progress. I am pleased with it. I'm proud of it. But at the same time, as we have always said, you have to reeducate every generation.

MR. BARR: Speaking of -- you talked about the generations in the '40s and '50s and their commitment to stewardship and that, is that a factor that has changed any with the succeeding generations or --

MR. VRANA: It seems like people have so many more different interests these days than we had then. Farmers were tied to the soil. They were tied to their livestock. They were agrarians. Today we have industrial type farmers. They play golf. They have been to college, many of them. And that seems to have given them broader interests and not the focus that we had back in those earlier days.

MR. BARR: At this point if you have got any sort of observations you would like to offer on any of these general things we have talked about, in particular as related to NRDs but also just in general about conservation and natural resource programs locally and nationally?

MR. VRANA: Well, I think in all due respects to the NRDs, I will say that while my first impression when they were being organized, formed, law passed, I was skeptical. And while they have probably broadened the mission, all in all they have been a good thing. And it would have happened sooner or later I think here in Nebraska. I am a little surprised that other states haven't picked up on it. But I think they have served us well.

MR. BARR: Along that same line, the Water for Food Institute has, among other issues that they are looking at, one of the ones is how to organize politically or not necessary politically but in an administrative fashion to deal with natural resource problems and particularly in relating to food, water, production. Is the model of the natural resource district anything that you think might have application beyond the United States?

MR. VRANA: Well, that's interesting because the thing that pops in my mind is the Reverend David Beckman who is the head of the Bread for the World, grew up in Garland, Nebraska, or that's where his family came from. And Reverend Beckman I guess I would say honored me here a couple, three years ago when he came to the house to visit and asked that similar question. And we talked about it and, yes, I think that there is room for any type of mission of getting the local people involved in a governing capacity.

MR. BARR: Well, you've got one more shot of anything you would like to add.

MR. VRANA: Well, all I can say is that be it through NRDs, the Soil Conservation Service, soil conservation districts, I think that I have enjoyed a good life. And while we have had passionate commitment to soil conservation, water conservation, I think that when you can live being satisfied that you are doing something for the good of God's creation, your conscience is clear, there's not the stress, and I feel like I have had a great life. And I tell people that my wife was the one that alerted me to the fact that there was a job opening I might apply for which got me into the Soil Conservation Service. And so my career has been indebted to the two decisions I ever made, first to marry Elaine, and, secondly, to work for the Soil Conservation Service. With that I'll say amen.

MR. BARR: Thank you very much.