Workshop #20
April 8-9, 2010

Cherry County—comprising more than 6,000 acres, larger than the state of Connecticut—is a unique place with its striking landscape of undulating sandhills, beautiful rivers and lakes. The grasslands, forests, fresh air, clean and abundant water, natural wildlife habitats, and wind energy potential in the region are just a few of its resources. Participants in the Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshop in Valentine on April 8 and 9 defined these as resources they want to value and protect.

The Niobrara River and the Ogallala Aquifer are the two main water resources that enhance this unique ecosystem, they said. But the people of the region are another distinctive resource, they said. The work ethic, volunteer spirit, sense of community, as well as a certain independent, self-sufficient ethos, envinced by the people of Valentine and other communities in Cherry County are as valuable as its natural resources.

To maintain the viability and vitality of Cherry County's communities and ranches, all workshop participants agreed that attracting and retaining younger residents is a top priority.

Enthusiasm and love of place are not the problem, Laura Vroman, editor of The Valentine Midland News, said. "We have a lot of local 'cheerleaders'—a lot of people who love the community and area."

Jamie Isom, Superintendent of Valentine Community Schools, said that the local schools play a large part in the viability of the community, and Pat Neujahr, member of both the Valentine City Council and Economic Development Board, said that Valentine and its local schools have a great cooperative attitude with one another. "The schools are a central part of our city's life and activities," she said.

Bud Pettigrew suggested that students be asked to participate in City Council and School Board meetings and activities, as non-voting members "to get their input". "We need to start 'recruiting' students" in their middle school years, he suggested, to encourage and nurture their investment and interest in the community.

Jay Jenkins, Unit Leader for the Cherry County Extension Office and Kilgore Village Board member, agreed. "We do have a lot to offer here, even more than you'd expect," he said. "But no one ever asked me to return here after I graduated from college. No one here tried to 'recruit' me. I just came back. We have a number of ranch turnovers around here because the kids aren't returning. They probably aren't being asked to return either."

Gailee Streigel, Cody Village Clerk and Treasurer, said, "But we all want to keep our young kids in the ranching business and even expand our agribusiness interests."

"This is a lifestyle worth sustaining," said Cherry County Commissioner Mark Adamson, "and we need to bring youth back to the area to do that. We need planning to provide viable opportunities for them. We need young professionals, like doctors, as well as young ranchers."

Jim Luchsinger, Middle Niobrara Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy, a large landholder in the area, said, "But we've never really developed a strategic plan. What do we want to look like in 10 years, in 20 years? Do we want Valentine to remain at 2,800 [population], or grow to 5,000, or become a regional center of 20,000? I think it's important that we find a confluence of local economic development plus environmental concerns." He pointed out that Nebraska "doesn't even have a comprehensive land use policy." Taking both a short- and long-term view in creating some strategic plans could help bring about a dynamic that would attract and retain young professionals, ranchers and families, he suggested.

"If we are serious in Nebraska about our precious and unique resources—water, energy, food, land—we must do this at the local level," said W. Cecil Steward, creator of the NSLW and President and CEO of the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities. "We are never going to get from the Legislature what we need."

Leadership for this important planning must start at the local level. Mark Adamson said, "Local leaders live in the community. We have to be there for the residents and do what's best for the community. We have to be accountable to the local people."

Jay Jenkins agreed. "I tend to think of leadership at the local level, because that's where things get done."

So what is a good local leader? Bud Pettigrew, an official for the Nebraska Democratic Party, said, "Good ethics and integrity are essential." Pat Neujahr said that good leaders are open-minded and listen carefully to all sides. Laura Vroman said that good leaders must be creative, and Jim Luchsinger said leaders must be available. "You don't have to agree with what you're hearing," he added, "but you have to be there to listen."

Cliff Petersen, Prevention Coordinator at the Minnechaduza Foundation and a member of the Economic Development Board, said, "You have to be able to state your case, make a good argument in support of your cause. And you have to be willing to take an unpopular stand." Others agreed, and added that good leaders must have the motivation of working for the good of the whole, must earn respect and give trust, must ask questions, and communicate reasons and rationales.

Energy was the focus of much discussion at the Valentine NSLW, and the fact that Nebraska's unique publicly-owned utilities have been able to keep rates very low may be a mixed blessing. Even if individuals, companies, or communities could develop their own wind farms, they'd be unable to sell excess energy back to the grid at a reasonable rate, or across state lines. (While the workshop was being held, the Unicameral passed LB1048, which will allow private companies to generate wind power in Nebraska for export to other states. The companies would be required to pay the expensive costs of building transmission lines to export the power. Officials say that would protect the state’s cheap electric rates from rising.) Jim Luchsinger noted that even so, wind energy isn't especially efficient now, "and it is only worth investment now because of subsidies."

Chad Podolak, energy efficiency expert from Nebraska Public Power District, which owns a wind farm near Valentine in Brown County, agreed. Podolak spoke to the group about the relative merits of wind energy, solar energy, geothermal-, coal- and hydro-produced energy, gasoline and diesel, natural gas and biofuels. None of these alone will provide the answer to our ever-increasing energy needs. He stressed the fact that energy efficiency measures are "the most cost-effective thing we can do now" to obviate the need for immediate new resources and to keep oil imports down. Podolak suggested that solar energy may one day be the best answer because it is free and endlessly renewable, but he said efficient and inexpensive technology to capture, store, and transmit solar energy does not yet exist. "And the answer may lie in some other technology altogether," he said. "It may come from some technology or source we haven't even dreamed of yet."

For the immediate future, however, Podolak told the group about all the programs NPPD has to offer Nebraskans, including energy auditors for commercial structures, financial incentives for HVAC systems for commercial buildings, incentives for lighting, motors, drives, agricultural lighting and irrigation, as well as an on-line tool for residential consumers designed to help them improve energy efficiency in their houses.

Jim Crandall, Program Coordinator of the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center for UNL in Holdrege, addressed the workshop about how cooperatives and community food systems can be engines of economic growth and job creation. He pointed to scores of businesses that have been started using cooperative strategies in rural Nebraska communities. Crandall spoke to the group about the importance of community food systems in a region's economic development and health, and pointed out that local foods are an increasingly viable source of revenue to a community, as well as a safe, healthy source of good foods for local restaurants, groceries, and institutions like schools and hospitals and nursing homes.

Sandra Scofield, Director of the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative and a former state legislator, talked to the group about the Rural Initiative: "Our mission is to identify opportunities in rural Nebraska and catalyze experimentation, innovation and collaboration across campuses, in partnership with rural citizens, to enhance the economy of rural areas while promoting the sustainable and socially beneficial use of resources."

"We have a one-of-a-kind landscape and habitat here," Scofield said, "and there are a lot of people who live in cities a long way from here who want to experience something wonderful like this. Agritourism is a growing industry." The Rural Initiative can help.

She talked about how they have developed a training program for Red Carpet rural tourism. Entrepreneurial tourism, she said, is a growing source of economic development. Community food systems are another resource being developed in many Nebraska towns, and the Rural Initiative is looking at best ways to rebuild the production and distribution networks that used to exist in the state. Market Maker helps producers find markets for their food products. She talked about studies being done to determine what makes people remain or leave rural Nebraska communities, and how the Initiative has developed an enterprise budget tool (available on their website and dozens of other resources available to all Nebraskans.

Paul Bartlett, Regional Director of the USDA Community Development office in Kearney, told the group about the many programs the USDA has for rural communities—from financing for hospitals and telecommunications systems to low-cost loans for water and septic systems, energy and housing, as well as business development.

"Federal stimulus money is available for housing, businesses, infrastructure," he said. "You need these three 'legs' to have a sustainable, stable community. We at the USDA have the resources for you in the form of loans and grants, technical assistance, partnerships, and collaboration."

One of the more important natural resources in the Valentine area is water. Jim Goeke, hydrogeologist and professor in the University of Nebraska Survey and Conservation Division office in North Platte, gave the group a fast immersion in the geology of water in Nebraska.

"The State of Nebraska has finally realized that surface water and groundwater are connected," Goeke said. "As we pump it, it will eventually affect stream flow."

The Niobrara River is a unique basin, he said. Rainfall is the main source of recharge of groundwater, and in the Niobrara basin, with its 18 to 22 inches per year of rainfall, is doing okay now. In addition, he said, "the sandhills are really dynamic. For the last 10 years, water levels here have increased because of increased stream flow. Things are going well." Nebraska, he said, "is a water machine," and the Niobrara is dominated by groundwater discharge.

Nevertheless, he said, his group has not drilled a lot of test holes in the Niobrara Basin to investigate water resources. Cherry County Commissioner Mark Adamson said, "We have four times the amount of water going out that we have going in, and yet we're considered fully appropriated. With the Scenic River designation, all the DNRs, NRD, Game and Parks, and on and on, it's a little frustrating. Right now they don't want to gauge anything above the Snake River."

"And I object to those limited investigations," said Goeke. "Still there are a lot of things we can and do do to help recharge, like terracing to slow down runoff and other practices."

Sandra Scofield said, "People across Nebraska need to become more educated about water. It is critical." Goeke agreed. "Water is the foundation of our life," he said.

Scofield pointed out that she helped to create the University of Nebraska position of legislative liaison to help state senators and their staffs to learn more about the research projects Goeke and other scientists at the University are conducting and about their findings so that they can become more responsible in their legislation. "We need to conserve our resources and use them wisely."

Goeke and Cecil Steward pointed out that it is critical. "Right now, more than half the people in Nebraska live in the Lincoln and Omaha metroplex," Steward said. "The Ogallala Aquifer does not extend to that area; they get their water from the Platte River now. I shudder to think what's going to happen when they start thinking about a pipeline from western Nebraska to the cities in the east." And Scofield agreed. "The U.S. Census may mean we're going to have less representation from rural Nebraska in the State Legislature and Congress," she said. "There may be more urban legislators. So you must become educated on the precious resources you have here and the best ways to conserve them."

"If we need to know what is happening to us, we need to be able to measure it," Steward said. "Preparing a community study means preparing background and working information." With this, Steward introduced the group to the EcoSTEP planning/measuring tool for sustainability indicators. In order to use the EcoSTEP tool for planning, you must define indicators, he advised. "There are two characteristics for indicators," he said. "You need to be able to quantify it, and you need to be able to retrieve the same data, or same data sources, each year."

The group then used the EcoSTEP tool to plan how Valentine might grow and sustain itself as a regional market. The EcoSTEP exercise results are posted on the EcoSTEP page here. >

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Site design and development by Zigzag

Resources from the
Valentine Workshop

Most of the workshop materials can be downloaded from our Resources and Documents pages. Below are some materials specifically from the consultants and speakers at the Valentine workshop, as well as some who were not there.

Hydrogeologist Jim Goeke has provided two PowerPoints for NSLW workshop participants: Nebraska's Water Resources—Past, Present, Future and Water Trends on the High Plains

Read UNL Rural Initiative Director Sandy Scofield's important paper, A Crash Course in Infrastructure: Expensive but Essential Components for Rural (and Urban) Nebraska’s Future, for important ideas on how infrastructure contributes to growth and development in Nebraska's towns and cities. Download the PDF here >

Community Food Systems, PowerPoint presentation by Jim Crandall, Associate Director of the Nebraska Cooperataive Development Center, Nebraska’s center for cooperative-based business development.

Energy: How Our Future Will Look Different and What We Can Do About It, PowerPoint presentation by Daniel Lawse, Energy Expert and Sustainable Solutions Coordinator for Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

Chad Podolak's presentation, All Roads Lead to Energy Efficiency, is available as a PowerPoint. Click here >

Many participants were interested in affordable housing and blighted housing issues. Danielle Hill is Executive Director of the Nebraska Housing Developers Association in Lincoln, a non-profit dedicated to addressing low-income and affordable housing, housing for the elderly, and for the disabled and handicapped and affordable housing policy, and planning, among other initiatives. The association is available to work with communities. You can visit their website for more information: