Those who love Nebraska’s natural resources are better off because of people like Ione Werthman.
Werthman’s love of nature became her passion after her five children grew up, and she was among those who played an important role in protecting the Platte River system and Niobrara River, and in preserving from development Heron Haven, one of Omaha’s last natural springs and wetlands.
Werthman, a longtime member of the National Audubon Society and Audubon Society of Omaha and a recipient of state and national environmental honors, died Thursday. She was 89.
“I see Ione as one of the iconic conservationists for the state of Nebraska,” said Mark Brohman, executive director of the Nebraska Environmental Trust. “We had her for a long time; she did a lot of work for us, and we’re grateful for that.”
In Omaha, Werthman is best known for her work in the 1990s to protect one of the last oxbow wetlands of the Big Papillion Creek, near 120th Street and West Maple Road. Not as well known was her contribution in blocking an Interstate proposed through the Cathedral neighborhood.
Heron Haven, as the wetlands area is now known, was on the verge of being developed as a 168-unit apartment complex when Werthman, the property’s neighbors and others, including the Audubon Society of Omaha and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, went to bat for it.
“There were a whole lot of people who did a lot of work to protect that wetland, but it’s fair to say that if Ione hadn’t been there, there’s a good chance the wetlands would be apartments now,” said Duane Hovorka, executive director of the Nebraska Wildlife Federation.
Werthman didn’t back down when the developer told her to find the money if she wanted to save the wetlands, said Sam Bennett, president of the board of Friends of Heron Haven.
“Ione had a personality like nobody I ever met in my life,” he said. “She was one of those people who, if you said, ‘No, you can’t,’ she dug in her heels that much deeper and tried that much harder to prove you wrong. And she did it time and again.”
Werthman volunteered at Heron Haven well into her 80s.
Earlier in her life she fought dams on the South Platte and Niobrara Rivers, lobbied for scenic river protection of the Niobrara and was among those who faithfully engaged in the tedious, years-long development of a conservation plan for the Platte, Hovorka and Brohman said.
A congressional plaque recognizes her work on the Niobrara. The Nebraska Wildlife Federation gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Audubon Society honored her with the William Dutcher Award for her commitment to conservation. She also was a recipient of the Howard L. Wiegers Nebraska Outstanding Wildlife Conservation Award.
“She’s a legacy of the start of the modern environmental movement ... in which a lot of people with very little money got together and did some pretty remarkable things,” Hovorka said. “She didn’t wait around when she saw something that needed to be done.”
Among those whose lives Werthman touched is a relative newcomer to Omaha: Chris Robie, a naturalist and educator who has followed her Navy husband around the world. Robie said the city has a jewel in Heron Haven.
Robie takes students from Brownell-Talbot School to Heron Haven and uses it as more than an outdoor classroom.
“I use (Ione) as an example of one person standing up for what she believes in and how a small group can make a difference,” Robie said. “It’s an important concept to share with children, who often think they can’t make a difference. I want them to know that they can — she’s a great example of that.”
Werthman was born Iona Jane Dirks on a dairy farm near Coleridge, Nebraska. She grew up accustomed to the hard work of farm life: milking cows, separating the cream and delivering the milk door-to-door in town, according to a family obituary written by a son, Jerry Werthman of Fairfax Station, Virginia.
She married Alfred Werthman, a photographer from Hartington, Nebraska. They shared a love of photography that would feed their growing family and earn them acclaim.
Werthman was preceded in death by her husband. In addition to her son Jerry, she is survived by daughters Jeanne Zukowski of Estes Park, Colorado; and Mary Werthman and Patricia Whetstone of Omaha; son Roger Werthman of Omaha; eight grandchildren; and numerous great-grandchildren.
Visitation is scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at John A. Gentleman Chapel, 1010 N. 72nd St.
Services will be at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday at St. Cecilia Cathedral, 701 N. 40th St.
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