By Sara Kangas
Time and time again, we’ve seen that locally-led, voluntary conservation on working lands is one of the biggest driving forces of effectively preserving and protecting natural resources. Landowners across the nation are committed to this very principle, and with more than 75 percent of land in the United States privately owned, it’s important to recognize and celebrate their achievements.
The Leopold Conservation Awards Program was designed to do exactly that. The program is currently active in 13 states across the country – California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming – and the award nominees are evaluated by an independent panel of agriculture professionals in six categories: responsible management, sustainable revenue, leadership, overall land health, innovation, and outreach.
The winners receive a crystal award, plus a $10,000 cash prize provided by sponsors in each state. In Kansas and North Dakota, the award programs are held in partnership with the states’ conservation district associations.
Jim Krueger, executive director for the Kansas Association of Conservation Districts, told NACD that each year the state panels see a wide range of applicants. “Anything from rangeland cattlemen to dairies to small farms to diversified grain and livestock to grain only – we’ve got about everything. It doesn’t really matter to us whether they’re a diversified operation or grain only or livestock only, it’s all about what they’ve done in the line of conservation and their ability to share that information.”
That diversity helps promote the message of conservation.
Kreuger says that a majority of applicants, who are required to engage in community outreach, are involved with their local districts and use district-provided technical assistance. “Some of the best conservation teaching comes from following the progressive farmer in the county or in the area,” said Krueger.
“I think what makes (the awardees) extraordinary is that they look outside of the box… so way past what they can do to address the resource concern,” Kreuger said. To them, “it’s not so much about ‘let’s preserve it,’ but ‘let’s make it better!’”
The Leopold Conservation Award is often referred to as the “Nobel Prize of agriculture.” Kreuger told NACD that last year’s Kansas recipients donated their cash winnings to their county 4-H foundation. While he says the panel doesn’t expect everyone to do that, it was nice to see people giving back to the next generation. “(Aldo) Leopold was all about preserving and maintaining and improving for future generations. I know that’s how the winners of the Leopold award felt – and I think that’s what made them winners.”
Nominations are still open in California, Oklahoma, Utah, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. If you’re interested in nominating someone for this or next year’s awards program, visit the Sand County Foundation’s website.