21 May 2018

Special Recognition Given to Unique Nebraska Conservationist

Two events occurred during mid-May to recognize the many efforts by Ione Werthman a farm girl raised near Coleridge, Nebr. Her educational focus and concerns for the natural features would after years of interest and concern become a unique and special legacy associated with getting things done to protect natural resources in Nebraska.

A first recognition event occurred Thursday, May 17th at Heron Haven Wetland in west Omaha at the nature center which Ione was instrumental in working with the local NRD to establish a place where natural values continue on a daily basis at a prominent natural area within a developed urban environment filled with streets and buildings.

A proclamation issued by the Omaha City Council indicated it was “Ione Werthman Day.” A key aspect was that the city street on the north side of the haven was officially redesignated as “Ione Werthman Drive.”

More than 20 people were at the haven nature center event, according to a member of the Werthman family in attendance. People present included Sam Bennett, the current president of the Friends of Heron Haven group and who was instrumental in the recognition effort, Mark Brohman the director of the Nebraska Environmental Trust who has always been supportive of funding requests to promote conservation efforts for a bit of an urban wetland filled with natural life, and other people with an interest and luminaries, including Hal Daub.

Ione Werthman won awards from the Nebraska Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society for her efforts, according to the proclamation signed by each member of the Omaha city council. This indicated item conveys a basic tenant given for the distinctive honoree: “Whereas, Ione Werthman has been referred to as a fierce protector of wildlife and one of Nebraska’s iconic conservationists” ...

It is very obvious that even years after her active efforts that some key people recognized a legacy and undertook successful efforts to recognize a personal legacy.

Valentine Recognition

During a drizzly, cool afternoon when incessant rain fell upon Valentine environs on Saturday the 19th, a fine group of people gathered to convey how so many did so many essential actions that resulted in the establishment of the Niobrara National Scenic River. The appreciation meeting was sponsored by the National Park Service.

There were many “Great Americans” recognized. Obviously Ione Werthamn and her husband Al were actively involved once efforts to conserve the free-flowing Niobrara River became an issue of a broad public concern.

Ione and Al’s son Jerry spoke first, and was “thankful for what my mom and dad did” while he shared some particular highlights of their legacy. Ione followed her husband as a leader of the Audubon Society of Omaha, then Nebraska Audubon Council and then to a national level as a member of the board of directors for National Audubon Society. She traveled to Washington D.C. three times to promote the designation of a significant portion of the Niobrara as a scenic river.

Also present was the couple’s daughter Jeanne.

In subsequent years, she was the key force behind the founding of Heron Haven, protecting a relic wetland from development and then directing its establishment as a distinct nature area with a nature center in a former bar.

An especially prominent event at the celebration was the unveiling of a framed document recognizing Ione’s involvement in getting the scenic river established. The wall hanging was loaned to the National Park Service for display at the Niobrara Scenic River visitor center.

Werthman Family at the recognition event at Valentine.

Many names were mentioned when Bruce Kennedy, member of Friends of the Niobrara River, spoke. He mentioned that the 1970s were “a dark period of those who loved rivers” in Nebraska. There were plans to place dams on the Platte, Calamus and Niobrara rivers. “Leadership emerged,” he said. “It was one of the most fantastic things I’ve ever seen.”

Ione Werthman was a member of the friends group since its beginning, and continues to be listed as a member, despite her death in 2016.

The extent of people that cared increased when Mel Thorton dramatically indicated his recollections. People individually recognized included Ron Klataska associated with the National Audubon Society (Kennedy recalled his horseback ride along the river valley to promote the scenic river; he initially bought the property that would eventually become the Fred Thomas WMA at the east end of the scenic river; and as a leader of the Audubon of Kansas was instrumental in establishing the Hutton Niobrara Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary along the Niobrara River), Fred Thomas an environmental reporter for the Omaha World-Herald that was an essential asset as he wrote of news and activities and continually contributed through reporting and personal interest until his death in 1999 with the Fred Thomas WMA officially dedicated in October 1999, Laura and Merle Curry, Franklin and Lillie Egelhoff, Loren Wilson who was one of the first outfitters along the river, Ernest Rousek and Tim Knott (he accompanied Ione to Washingto D.C. to speak to legislators about the need for a scenic river) of Audubon, as well as Wes Sandall an area rancher.

“These are our great Americans,” said Bruce Kennedy.

Mel Thorton talked about the effort to split an acre of land near Rocky Ford into 4840 square yard parcels that were sold for $25 each so that any effort to build a dam would have to individually deal with each owner. He explained that in 2008 the Niobrara River was listed as one of the ten most threatened river in the nation due to water being taken for irrigation purposes. Soon, the river was declared to be fully appropriated, impeding any further extractions.

Having an opportunity to personally comment, it was simply wonderful to remember an activist of past times. Ione Werthman was a compatriot. We were a team. We were goal oriented. If someone told us No, that was simply the wrong answer because there are times when that single word was a call to further action and “digging in the heels” to ensure conservation of something essential and valuable. Were we always successful? Of course not but we were still very effective. Ione and I learned as we collaborated together on activities mostly done in association with the Audubon society.

We would not let some bureaucrat impose their view that a development that would destroy uniquely valuable natural values because of the perceived need for something like a dam to provide water to irrigate corn fields. Or in later years to allow a natural spring book to get put into a culvert because engineers did not put in the time to achieve what had already been agreed to. The bureaucrats may have changed their mind, but an adamant no meant a redesign that meant there would be no culvert for the brook at Spring Lake Park, a City of Omaha project that would eventually win an environmental award for its design and implementation.

When attending a recognition dinner for having received environmentalist of the year award from Woodmen (for getting conservation management at a small public land parcel at Levi Carter Park), I made sure to invite Ione and insisted that she speak and share some of her recollections. She was the one that deserved the award. It was grand that she could share the spotlight and be publicly acknowledged.

I still remember visiting Ione in her room at the assisted living facility just a short distance from where she knew my family as we were active participants in the local church community.

Ione was my friend and I am pleased to have her been her ally and to have been helped her to get an oprational windmill from a Cherry county ranch at get it erected at Heron Haven. This effort failed, probably because she could be less involved as age was having its affect.
Perhaps, as an option, a Sandhills windmill should be placed at Rocky Ford if/when it becomes another unique river asset that the public can appreciate and treasure now and for future generations.

Ione Werthman was certainly a Great American. Her legacy continues to be known by activists including those involved in the conservation movement for so many past years, while new generations very much appreciate the Niobrara National Scenic River and Heron Haven.

There are some very prominent conservation concerns along the Niobrara River and the Sand Hills. It is heartening that several ranch women have stepped to the plate and are essential in efforts to protect the sandhills from industrial wind turbine facilities and industrial powerlines. Ione would certainly be pleased about this...

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