Whitewood Ranch named finalist for Leopold Conservation Award

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WHITEWOOD, S.D. (KEVN) - Four finalists have been selected for the prestigious 2019 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award. It's given in honor of Aldo Leopold recognizing private landowners inspiring others with their dedication to the land, water and wildlife resources in their care.

We talked with one of the finalists in Lawrence County about their efforts and what it means to be a finalist.

"Oh, it's amazing. We're just in our everyday clothes, we're just doing what we do that someone would notice," said Deb Hefner.

She's kept a journal about the ranch for the past 10 years.

"Dan's grandma McNelly, whose place this was, kept a journal I think from 1930 until her death in 1970 or so. I think when you keep a journal you notice the little things," Hefner said. "You notice the geese that come back every year and land in the hay field. It just makes you more aware when you're looking for those little details."

The Hefner Ranch has some tricky elevation though, going from just over 3,000 feet to under 4,000.

"It creates some challenges for spreading out livestock grazing, diversifying livestock grazing, maintaining the soil health," said Dan Hefner.

Working on improving soil health is a major win for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"Your hard pressed on this ranch to find a spot of exposed soil because that's where erosion starts when a raindrop hits unprotected soil surface," said USDA District Conservationist Tanse Herrmann.

"We have to have the grass to capture the water and the sunlight to produce feed for those cows," said Hefner.

But the couple hasn't bowed down to any criticism.

"I've been criticized in the past by leaving so much grass and having so much thatch here, but that's okay I don't care about the criticism. It's my idea and my philosophy that that grass is all gonna go decay into the soil and improve the soil health and it's also gonna hold the water up here to produce more grass," said Hefner.

The Hefners have implemented some other helpful practices.

"'We've done a lot of cross fencing over the years, put in a lot of water lines and tried to distribute the grazing through distributing the water upon the hills, to get the cattle up there. We've fenced off the riparian area some 30 years ago, put fresh water there where the stream is, and while they're there they don't have to drink out of the stream, they drink fresh water," said Hefner.

With some big plans to continue their efforts if they win the award.

"We'd like to bury some more pipeline, put some more fresh water out, do some more cross fencing," said Hefner. "It would go right back into the ranch."

Along with the hopes to educate people on what they're doing.

"We do take care of the land and we do take care of our livestock because that's what takes care of us. It's sustainable for now and for the future," said Hefner.

The Hefners were nominated by the South Dakota chapter of the Society for Range Management. One of the focal points of the nomination was the riparian area. The vegetation goes right down to the water and into the water, which helps to hold the stream banks together, keeping them from washing away. It helps their livestock as well as the wildlife that flocks to it throughout the year.

The winner for this year's award will be announced by Governor Kristi Noem on Earth Day, which is Monday, April 22. The winner receives $10,000 and a crystal depicting Leopold at the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association's Annual Convention in December.

For more information on NRCS, click here.