Multi-progged UFF Efforts

1974 marked the emergence of United Family Farmers as a potent political force. The new group launched strategic initiatives on multiple fronts, including a lawsuit against the Bureau of Reclamation, legislative proposals in the South Dakota legislature, and an effort to win elections and place project opponents on the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board of directors. The sub-district elections were of special importance.

Political Force

Directing policy for the Oahe sub-district was an elected board of 11 directors. Nine of these seats were filled by directors residing in and elected by voters in rural areas of the sub-district. Two directors represented residents in the cities and towns of the sub-district. Contested elections for board positions since the inception of the sub-district in 1960 had been rare, and board seats were occupied by project supporters. That changed in 1974. Since its inception 14 years earlier only project supporters had served as Oahe board directors, and monthly board meetings were uneventful public events characterized by pro-Oahe proclamations and decision-making that favored the project. That circumstance would shift in 1974 when UFF fielded a slate of candidates to run for seats on the Oahe board. Surprisingly, four UFF-backed candidates won, and although two modified their positions and became more accepting of the irrigation project, two UFF candidates, Bill Piper and a Brown County farmer named John Sieh, remained steadfastly opposed to the project. Piper and Sieh effectively promoted their anti-Oahe positions as board members, and many UFF members begin attending board meetings, creating hostile and confrontational conditions with project supporters and board members. The only manager the sub-district had known resigned, stating that the acrimonious atmosphere surrounding the project had become unbearable.

Biased Media

Since the earliest days of Oahe –pre-1960- South Dakota’s media establishment had strongly supported construction of the Oahe project. Coverage in the state’s leading newspapers, as well as television and radio stations, minimized the presence of opposition to the project and failed to present a balanced discussion about environmental, land condemnation and other issues. Evidence reveals there was collusion between the media, project supporters and the Bureau of Reclamation to promote the project and stymie United Family Farmers and other project opponents. In many mainstream media articles and editorials, Oahe opponents were ridiculed and their concerns were dismissed. The state’s top elected officials, such as Governor Richard Kneip and U.S. Senator George McGovern, pursued legislative and other tactics to slow or defeat the strategies of project opponents, and the media cooperated with elected leaders to accomplish that agenda. An exception to South Dakota-based media coverage favoring Oahe was the Volante, the student-run newspaper at the University of South Dakota.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had expressed concerns over Oahe starting in 1972. In 1974, the agency released a lengthy report detailing their concerns. Oahe opponents viewed EPA’s concerns as verification for their opposition. Oahe supporters, led by Senator George McGovern, endeavored to influence EPA to withdraw its objections.

UFF Attempts Stop of Work

Oahe supporters celebrated start-up of the irrigation project’s $9.9 million pump plant adjacent to Oahe dam. The Bureau of Reclamation awarded the contract to build this project feature on April 25, 1974. Just four days later United Family Farmers sought a restraining order in U.S. District Court to block work on the Oahe project, including this facility. UFF's request was denied.

Lawsuit to Halt Project Fails

United Family Farmers launched political and legal initiatives to stop the Oahe project. Their political strategy included efforts in the South Dakota legislature. Their legal strategy involved challenging the project’s environmental impact statement as well as other allegations. UFF and its attorneys, Martin Weeks and John Davidson, sought to stop the Bureau of Reclamation from commencing Oahe construction because a project already under construction is more difficult to derail than one that has not yet started construction development and investment. UFF’s failure to secure a preliminary injunction did not deter the group from continuing its legal challenges to the project and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Friends of Oahe

To counter the rising influence and activities of United Family Farmers, Oahe supporters, encouraged by Senator George McGovern, formed a new organization called “Friends of Oahe”. This advocacy group was funded primarily by business and construction interests, and the rivalry between UFF and Friends of Oahe was immediately and openly hostile.