Elected Board at Washington Conservation District Provides Leadership Behind the Scenes

During the 1930’s, millions of Americans struggled to survive an economic depression and severe drought. In the wake of the Dust Bowl, Minnesota passed legislation to create Soil and Water Conservation Districts – county-wide local units of government that could work directly with farmers and other landowners to protect valuable farmland, nurture soil health, repair damage caused by erosion, and preserve healthy lakes and rivers. From this legislation, Washington Conservation District (WCD) was established in 1942.  The District is governed by five locally elected supervisors that represent the five commissioner districts in the county. Though WCD board supervisors rarely end up in the spotlight, their leadership helps to guide land and water protection efforts across Washington County.

The Washington Conservation District was established in 1942, in the wake of severe erosion and soil loss during the Dust Bowl and Depression.

Louise Smallidge (District 4) is the longest-running member of the WCD Board of Supervisors and currently serves as the board chair. She and her husband Gene first purchased farmland in Cottage Grove in 1965 in an area that was then known as Langdon (across from Renewal by Anderson today). The Smallidges employ a variety of conservation practices on their land, including grassed waterways, rotational grazing, and conservation tillage, and were honored as the WCD Outstanding Conservationists in 1975. Over the nearly 20 years Louise has served on the board, she has watched Washington County transition from mostly agricultural to rapidly developing. “I’m proud of the fact that the WCD was able to navigate that transition and grow,” she says. Louise is also proud of the strong relationships the WCD has built with the county and watershed management organizations over the years.

Vice-chair John Rheinberger (District 3) first developed his love for nature while exploring and playing in the undeveloped ravines of Stillwater as a child. Back then, he says, the city looked much different than it does today. There was coal debris along the riverway, the air was filled with smog, and people dumped litter and waste into the woods and ravines around town. Over the years, John has served on the Washington County Parks Commission, the City of Stillwater Planning Commission, Stillwater City Council, and the County Groundwater Committee. John sees a lot of reasons to feel hopeful about the future of conservation in Washington County based on the progress we have made so far. One of his biggest priorities is protecting groundwater resources in the area for the future. “We can’t go back to the way it was in the 1950’s when our rivers and air were so polluted,” he says. “But, time is of the essence when it comes to conservation. We need action now.”

Years ago, the riverfront in Stillwater was littered with coal debris. Now, the St. Croix River is a scenic amenity.

Bob Rosenquist (District 1) and his wife Marilyn own 40 acres of land in eastern Hugo adjoining Kelly Farms. In addition to the WCD Board, Bob also served on the Hugo Planning Commission for 21 years before stepping down this summer. The Rosenquists bought their land in 1972 and got involved in farming when their children were in 4H. In addition to pasture areas, 20 acres of their land is part of the Keystone Woods, which was identified as one of the highest quality habitats in the county. Bob doesn’t identify himself as a “tree-hugger” but thinks there is a lot we could be doing better to protect our land and water resources. “Not many people in the county know about the Washington Conservation District and what we do,” he says, “but that education and engagement is so important.” Bob enjoys talking with the public at events such as the Washington County Fair and has started wearing his WCD hat around town as a way to strike up conversations with friends and neighbors.

The Washington Conservation District has been at the Washington County Fair since 1942.

Jim Levitt (District 2) grew up in a small town in northern Michigan, where he spent a lot of time outdoors hunting and fishing. Today, he works at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in their fisheries division. Since joining the Washington Conservation District board, he has enjoyed learning more about conservation work that happens on the land to protect lakes, rivers and streams. “I always supported practices such as raingardens, but it’s been interesting to learn how the WCD works with local partners to secure funding for these types of projects,” he says.

Diane Blake (District 5) is the newest member of the WCD Board of Supervisors, serving since January of 2017. Diane grew up in a very conservation-minded family. Her parents ran a Christmas Tree Farm and the family enjoyed camping, fishing, and spending time outdoors. Now, as the mother of two young kids, she appreciates family-friendly nature activities, such as the WCD’s family “pond-dipping” events this summer, where her children hunted for macroinvertebrates and learned about water quality in local lakes. “The Washington Conservation District is a well-run group of employees,” Diane says. “It makes it so easy to support the work that we do.”

This year, the WCD board celebrated the organization’s 75th Anniversary. (Left to right: Bob Rosenquist, Louise Smallidge, John Rheinberger, Diane Blake. Not pictured: Jim Levitt.)

The Conservation District Board meets monthly on the second Wednesday of each month, at 2:00pm. This year, the Washington Conservation District celebrates its 75th Anniversary.