How many cows can 40 acres sustain on the Laramie Plains?

Of course it depends on snowfall, rainfall, resulting grass cover, and what the terrain is like, but the general answer is one and a half, according to local experts. 

 That’s it, just one cow and her calf. To keep one horse instead, even more acreage is needed.  It’s a revealing number that explains a lot about life in rural Wyoming.

 That’s why cattle ranchers in the 1800s objected so vehemently to fences—they wanted their cows to be able to graze anywhere the grass was.

 But homesteaders couldn’t be stopped, fences came, and there was overgrazing.  Epic blizzards in the late 1800s wiped out most large Wyoming herds, ruining the livelihood of many cattle ranchers. Then came the droughts of the 1930s compounding the existing problems, though not to the degree suffered elsewhere on the Great Plains.

 A New Deal Program 

In 1935, at the height of the Dust Bowl era the Federal government established local Conservation Districts under a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) agency called the Soil Conservation Service—now the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

 The program allowed states to tackle the problem of soil and water conservation locally.  To obtain Federal money, they had to do something. 

 Before the LRCD was formed, the local District Conservationist under the USDA mainly interacted with agricultural producers and other Federal land management agencies. They mapped soil types, investigated watersheds, and made recommendations about best practices for private landowners. Local ranchers were no doubt skeptical of these efforts at first—well aware that previous Federal actions had helped create the dust bowl.

 For instance, the Homestead Act had carved up land into units that were too small to allow sustainable agriculture, and the government did little to discourage the mistaken belief that “rain follows the plow.” Also, farming practices such as tilling the soil in straight lines regardless of the land contour led to massive topsoil loss.

 LRCD

In the mid-1940s, Wyoming established laws that allowed residents to voluntarily form conservation districts—a process similar to other special purpose districts. As Albany County Assessor Grant Showacre points out, “Wyoming allows hospital, school, museum, cemetery and many other types of districts including conservation districts. These districts elect their own officers, and the officers make decisions on how money will be raised and spent.”

 Now there are over 3,000 conservation districts nationwide and 36 in Wyoming.  Their names vary from state to state, but they share the same mission to encourage the conservation of soil, water and all other renewable natural resources.

 The Laramie Rivers Conservation District (LRCD) was formed in 1945, as a result of those Federal and state efforts to avoid another Dust Bowl. Unlike many other conservation districts, ours encompasses the entire county.

 Urban problem too

By the mid-1980s it became obvious that solving the problem of soil loss wasn’t just the responsibility of farmers and ranchers.  All land managers including urban and rural homeowners have a role to play. Wildlife managers, water managers, residential renters and all units of government are partners in the effort as well.

 “That’s the unique thing about conservation districts,” says Tony Hoch, LRCD staff director.  “We have the ability to bring together a wide variety of constituents to cooperate in tackling a local problem.  Sometimes it requires private landowners, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the City of Laramie, Albany County government and the State Highway Department. We get them all to the table, and usually a solution is ironed out that all support. and contribute to.”

 Taxing authority

In the mid-1980s, the Wyoming Legislature gave conservation districts the power to request a mill levy from property owners in the district. According to the County Assessor’s office, the LRCD began collecting a mill levy from all county property owners in 1988.  Initially it was 0.5 mill; today it is 1 mill, the maximum under Wyoming law.

 This allows the LRCD to make a difference in land and water conservation, to demonstrate the interconnectedness of activities affecting land and water resources in both urban and rural settings. Trish Penney, Conservation Education Specialist for LRCD, has involved schools, city parks, and property owners in many educational projects ranging from xeriscaping to composting.

 Rooted in Agriculture

LRCD has four staff members who report to the five elected supervisors.  Wyoming law requires that three of the supervisors be from outside city limits (Laramie or Rock River), one must live in an “urban” area (inside a town or city), and one is elected at large.  “Our programs are rooted in the needs of Ag producers so it’s set up with a majority of the five supervisors from outside city limits” says Hoch.

 LRCD employees include two others in addition to Hoch and Penney. “Besides Trish, we have Martin Curry. Resource Specialist who mainly works on land issues, and I focus more on water issues and coordinate our efforts,” says Hoch. “Laura McGinley is the District Clerk and Communication Specialist. To see what we do, go to our website www.lrcd.net for an overview.”

 Brownfield remediation

When asked about LRCD’s most significant projects, Hoch points to their recent annual reports for examples such cost share programs supporting solar pump stations, livestock wells, and improved fencing. Then there are many education and outreach projects from ranching best practices to urban vegetable gardening. The District also holds an annual tree sale, with 3,700 tree seedlings sold in 2017.

 The most costly project and the one requiring the greatest coordination was clean up of  the old oil refinery on north Cedar Street.  .  “Everything is connected” as environmental scientists often say, so tackling this sizeable problem required a lot of cooperating groups.

 “The Brownfield Project was identified as a serious problem—soil was contaminated, the property couldn’t be used, and it was right along the Laramie River,” says Hoch.  “If we hadn’t come forward to get all the entities together to work on a solution, it wouldn’t have happened.” It was completed in 2017 with funding contributed by all government and private entities that had a stake in the outcome.

 Experts realized that the problem of soil loss is not solved by land management practices alone.

 Elected supervisors

At election time, we often hear “Why do we elect the LRCD Board of Supervisors?” While most voters know that they are residents of Albany County, they are not aware that they also live in the Laramie Rivers Conservation District.  As such, voters are required to elect the five non-partisan supervisors who serve four-year terms (staggered) with no salary.

 Ruth Shepherd was elected Urban Supervisor in 2016 and is the current chairperson; her 4-year term is not up this year.  This year voters will decide on who the at-large Supervisor will be.  The incumbent, Robert Shine, is running for reelection with no one else opposing him for the position.

 All voters elect the rural supervisors as well. This year a write-in candidate who lives outside city limits will win, since no one filed for the rural vacancy.  The winner will join Larry Munn, Carol Price, Ruth Shepherd (whose terms are up in 2020) and the winner of the at large election on the board.

 Your vote for LRCD supervisor matters. Land conservation is not just about livestock eating grass down to vulnerable topsoil or breaking down stream banks to get to water. It’s about what we all do, whether on small urban lots or large rural tracts.  Everything is connected when it comes to soil, water and renewable natural resource conservation.

By Judy Knight

Caption: An example of an LRCD project was the restoration of a four mile section of the Laramie River along the Greenbelt. This community-assisted project added stability and diversity to the river system through the use of wood, rocks and vegetation. It took place between 2009 and 2012. Photo courtesy of LRCD.