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Dan Gillespie is the winner of the 2019 Master Conservationist Award for Agriculture.

Nebraska continues to provide inspiring examples of environmental stewardship. This year’s Master Conservationist awards from The World-Herald and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources salute Nebraska individuals and institutions that show outstanding vision in nurturing a sound partnership with nature.

The World-Herald established the annual honors in 1983 to “recognize those who have excelled in soil and water conservation and protection.” This year’s winners demonstrate conservation vision that set outstanding examples for all Nebraskans:

» Dan Gillespie, 2019 Master Conservationist in Agriculture. Gillespie, a Madison County farmer, has excelled at innovative agricultural techniques in environmental stewardship. His years of no-till farming and use of cover crops have proved successful, and he has honed his skill at using the techniques. He shares his knowledge and experiences as a conservation technician and no-till specialist with the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Such “regenerative farming” techniques enable reductions in irrigation and fertilizer volume, which in turn lessens the runoff of nitrates into nearby streams. “The regenerative agriculture movement is all about looking at the systems we have in the field and comparing it to mother nature and seeing how much more we can emulate the natural system,” Gillespie told The World-Herald’s Sierra Karst.

The Nebraska Legislature this year underscored the importance of such conservation approaches by approving legislation to create a state soil health task force to study options for stronger outreach to agricultural producers on this issue. State Sen. Tim Gragert of Creighton sponsored Legislative Bill 243.

» Omaha Northwest High School’s Outdoor Environmental Classroom Project, 2019 Master Conservationist in the Youth category. The high school’s rain garden stores stormwater, keeping it from entering the city sewer system, but it also does much more. It has created a thriving natural environment that provides wide-ranging educational opportunities for Northwest students. Over the past three years, the project has received two national awards and $45,000 in grant money.

The rain garden is the creation of Rachael Arens, the project’s organizer and a horticulture and environmental science teacher at Northwest, and her students, in consultation with University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Steven Rodie and his landscape architecture students. Northwest students researched, designed and planted the garden. Developing and studying the garden has generated academic opportunities for students in multiple disciplines.

The project, Arens observes, is “a snapshot of what students have the power to do when you give them a voice and a platform to engage in something they’re passionate about and care about.”

» Spring Lake Park Project Team, 2019 Master Conservationist in the Community category. This project, part of Omaha’s sewer separation initiative, revived a South Omaha park using sound conservation approaches. The first phase included a man-made wetland lake, newly planted native plants and trees, and an improved playground. Jim Theiler, assistant director of the Omaha Public Works Department, praises the project for allowing pollution and sediment to disperse before releasing the water downstream.

The project is an excellent example of collaboration between an Omaha neighborhood association and the city’s Public Works and Parks Departments. Spring Lake neighborhood resident Janet Bonet got the ball rolling with a proposal to the Omaha Public Works Department.

The progress continues at the Spring Lake Project, with phase two almost complete, including more stormwater retention on the park’s golf course.

In these many ways, Nebraskans are promoting forward-looking conservation and setting outstanding examples for our state.

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