In the 1930s, after the Dust Bowl devastated Oklahoma, the Oklahoma State Conservation Board — known today as the Oklahoma Conservation Commission — was established.
Shortly thereafter, on Sept. 30, 1941 the Rogers County Conservation District was chartered. That was 75 years ago.
“It was a very dark time, not that it is was bad, but because the dust was so thick that people could not see hardly. In fact, it even darkened the nation’s capital,” said George Fraley, chairman of the Rogers County Conservation District, during a recent event marking the organization’s 75th anniversary.
Over the last seven decades, the Rogers County Conservation District has provided leadership in establishing flood control structures, reclaiming abandoned mines, creating the nature reserve at Rogers State University and providing conservation education.
“A commissioner was visiting with me not too long ago and he said, ‘It seems like to me that the Rogers County Conservation District is the best kept secret in Rogers County,’” said Fraley.
During the recent presentation, Fraley said 49 percent of Oklahoma’s abandoned mines are located in Rogers County, and the conservation district is active in reclaiming the mines.
“I guess the hardest thing in working on this for 30 years is, there were 13 fatalities in this county, and almost all of them were young kids who drowned in these pits swimming, so I am thankful that a lot of these are corrected now,” he said.
Conservation districts in the state established 2,100 watersheds. The watersheds help flood control in various areas. In the nature reserve at Rogers State, three retention ponds help Claremore’s flood control by catching runoff.
It was on July 5, 1989 that the Rogers County Conservation District officially created the partnership with Rogers State College.
“For the future of conversation, we needed to have more people learn what conservation is all about,” said Fraley. ”We needed to have some way to educate our kids about conservation.”
Dr. Richard Mosier was the president of the college during establishment of the nature reserve, and at the anniversary celebration he spoke about the beginnings of the partnership.
He said former Governor Henry Bellmon called presidents of various institutions around the state to a meeting, because his wife, Eloise Bellmon, was launching a new program called “Campus Beautiful.”
“It was a simple but effective idea,” said Mosier.
The premise of the program was that campuses throughout the state should be points of beauty, and open for public visitation. During that time, a nursery in Tahlequah would donate trees and shrubs to the institutions.
“Unfortunately, we started the program late and all they had left was a bunch of Redbud Trees … and the staff planted those,” said Mosier.
He also said he brought his administrative assistant, Diana McGuire, to the meeting in Oklahoma City.
“We heard the presentation, and on the drive home we thought about what we could do to implement this thing,” said Mosier. “Diana had the idea to expand the vision to the 60 acres of land between the campus and the golf course. Maybe the Rogers County Conservation District would be interested in partnering on some worthwhile project on the land.”
Now, approximately 100 acres on the RSU Campus is utilized as an outdoor classroom.
The nature reserve was built with a $138,000 grant from Texaco, a $60,000 fence was donated from a foundation in Tulsa and a county commissioner during that time helped lay the asphalt trails.
“We appreciate all the help from that time, and one of the things I remember the most is we started going to Tulsa and picking up prisoners to work on the reserve and they were building a water retention pond,” said Fraley.
Currently, Robert Gibbs serves as education coordinator for the nature reserve. “I came in to help take the reserve to more of a curriculum base, so when students came in they were receiving more than passive exposure to conservation,” said Gibbs. “We also have a lot of people who simply come and enjoy our little island oasis out in the middle of Claremore.”
Conservation districts around the state continue to struggle financially from annual budget cuts, according to Fraley.
“I will say we are starting to get concerned about having money to keep this reserve going. Four years ago, we actually had four full-time employees in the reserve. Due to all the budget cuts in the state we are down to one full-time employee and one part-time employee,” he said.
The Oklahoma Conservation Commission was appropriated $918,292 less than the previous year for the 2016-2017 Fiscal year budget.