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History of the Kittitas County Conservation District

On March 21, 1942, more than 400 Kittitas Valley landowners visited nine polling stations to vote overwhelmingly in favor of forming a conservation district. It was a beginning, but it was also the culmination of years of work at the federal, state and local levels not only to bring attention to the impacts of soil erosion but to do something about it. The USDA Soil Erosion Service (SES) established a demonstration project in the Badger Pocket area southeast of Ellensburg in 1936. In a speech to the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce in December 1936, Jack Rodner (SES employee) stated that the shallow soils on the steep lands under the Kittitas Reclamation District (KRD) highline were eroding badly. His assessment was that if the soil erosion wasn’t slowed or halted, a large part of the Badger Pocket could be abandoned within 5 years. The Badger Pocket Project included as much 40,000 acres and was essentially from Cooke Creek east and south. Some of these lands were in the Ellensburg Water Company Canal (Town Ditch) and Cascade Canal delivery areas and had been farm for two decades or more, but most were in the KRD delivery area and were newly converted to irrigated cropland. About a quarter of the project area was relatively flat, the rest was steep. Most of the area under the KRD also did not have stock water during the non irrigation season and drilling wells was expensive, so the farmers concentrated on crop production.

April 28, 1937; This picture shows severity of wind erosion before land is irrigated. Fine soil is blowing off fields that have been prepared for seeding. Tom Hamilton farm, 14 miles southeast of Ellensburg

Like other demonstration projects across the state, willing farmers in the Badger Pocket signed five-year cooperative agreements to install conservation measures. The SES furnished equipment, seed, seedlings, assistance in planning the measures, and labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) or the Works Projects Administration. In fact a CCC camp was set up at Kittitas County Fairgrounds in 1938. The SES staff worked to demonstrate conservation practices that would allow crop production while conserving soil. This included changing the distance between corrugations (the furrows in the field that direct irrigation water), shortening the lengths of corrugations, adding water control structures, using sprinklers on the steepest slopes, and planting trees. Many of the water distribution practices that are still in use began as part of that demonstration project. Assistance was available to farmers outside of the Badger Pocket Project area, however the SES staff could only offer advice. Within the project area, they offered both technical advice and did the actual work using their own staff or CCC staff. The SES Annual Report for 1938-1939 included a list of requests from other areas for information about the conservation practices they developed and demonstrated in the Badger Pocket. These requests came from areas in Yakima, Grant and Snohomish counties, as well as regions of Idaho. The SES listed these as indications of their success.

A green manure crop of winter rye on irrigation land is being plowed under before planting the field to late potatoes. Wires are being used on the plow to completely cover the heavy crop of rye which was lodged considerably by wind. Don McKenzie Farm, 16 miles SE of Ellensburg

As the Badger Pocket project was coming to an end in 1941, it became apparent to the farmers that the conservation work should continue. Since the 1939 Washington State Legislature passed Revised Code of Washington 89.08 – Soil Conservation District Law, it was now possible to not only continue the conservation work but to take local control. As required by the law, a petition was submitted to the State Soil Conservation Committee stating the interest in forming a district. Public Hearings were held in February and the referendum was scheduled for March. After the successful vote, the State Soil Conservation Committee appointed two local landowners as the first Board members. R.L. (Bob) Rutter and Alan Rogers met first in May 1942. Together they made the application to the Secretary of State and mailed it with the required $5 fee. They set the date for the election for the remaining three board members. In the June election, Rufus Schnebly, Jess Newman, and Mike Schormann joined Rutter and Rogers as the first Board of Supervisors. They would meet weekly (Thursday at 8PM) the first few months in order to organize the District.

The Cle Elum Soil Conservation District followed suit in 1947, establishing the District with a unanimous vote by 77 landowners. Tom Newton and Ray Baker were appointed by the State Soil Conservation Committee, and Fred Cushing, Steve Bednar, Otto Cooper were elected locally.

The Board members solicited some of the first funds for the Districts from the managements of the Washington National Bank of Ellensburg, the National Bank of Commerce, Ellensburg Branch, Kittitas State Bank of Kittitas and the Cle Elum Branch of Seattle First National Bank. In first year of operations for the Kittitas District, there were 125 applications for technical assistance, of which 95 were applications for farm and range plans. Forty plans were completed and signed for a total of 36,110 acres. When the Cle Elum District was established in 1947, they received 39 applications for farm plans, with 10 completed in the first year covering 3,500 acres. Such was their enthusiasm for the conservation districts that both Bob Rutter and Alan Rogers were part of the effort to establish the Washington Association of Conservation Districts and served as state officers. Rutter served a term as an officer for the National Association of Conservation Districts.

1939 cooperator George McKenzie looks over his crop of winter rye, which is to be turned under for a green manure crop before potatoes are planted in June. 8 miles SE of Kittitas