UFF Wins Out
United Family Farmers understood the importance of controlling the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board. After victories in the 1974 sub-district elections, the organization recognized that winning control of the board was possible, but such a position hinged on their candidates winning at least four sub-district board seats during the 1976 elections.
The local elections for director seats on the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board were fiercely contested in 1976, with candidates recruited by United Family Farmers competing against incumbents supported with funding and campaign assistance provided by Friends of Oahe. UFF hired Curt Hohn, a former aide to Senator George McGovern, to manage the election campaigns, and it also created an election committee to fundraise, and shape and implement campaign strategies. Despite warnings by Senator McGovern, Hohn and UFF outperformed Oahe supporters, and when the votes were counted project opponents controlled the sub-district board by a slender 6 to 5 margin. This development stunned the political and business establishment in South Dakota.
In this letter to outgoing Chairman of the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district Fred Holscher, Senator George McGovern warned about threats to the Oahe project, including the possibility that United Family Farmers could win control of the Oahe Conservancy Sub-district board.
United Family Farmer's 1976 campaign to win control of the Oahe sub-district board was relentless, shrewd, and successful. The organization carefully recruited candidates who could oust incumbents, raised sufficient funds to present a potent public education campaign, and unleashed over a two month period an ad campaign in dozens of weekly and daily newspapers and on radio stations serving the sub-district area. The ads featured at least 20 different themes and topics. Oahe proponents, including Friends of Oahe, were caught off-guard and were unable to counter UFF claims. The UFF ads not only promoted anti-project candidates, they helped educate the public about key issues related to the Oahe project. Shown above are two samples of UFF newspaper ads.
Pierre Canal Continues
The November, 1976 sub-district election results stunned the state’s political and business establishment, revealing how they had underestimated United Family Farmers and project opposition. Although the election results were historic, installing for the first time a board majority that opposed the Oahe project, the Bureau of Reclamation marched ahead with work on the massive Pierre Canal and the project’s large pump facility, and sped up condemnation proceedings against landowners along canal routes and new reservoir areas. Despite the project’s rapidly increasing opposition and the momentous sub-district elections, the Bureau of Reclamation was rewarded by Congress with a $19 million construction appropriation for 1977.
Supporters fight sub-district
Oahe supporters had long pointed to the pro-project position of the Oahe sub-district board to reflect public support for the Oahe project. But when United Family Farmers triumphed on election day, 1976 and won control of the Oahe sub-district board of directors, Oahe supporters quickly initiated plans to diminish the authority of the sub-district. Proponents filed a lawsuit seeking to reduce the voting power of rural directors on the board, and South Dakota Governor Richard Kneip pursued legislation creating an appointed commission –the Oahe Task Force- instead of the Oahe board as representing South Dakota regarding Oahe. United Family Farmers viewed these tactics as underhanded, and George Piper remarked: “They’re (Oahe supporters) trying to make a sham of the sub-district elections and the democratic process. We played by the rules of the game. We won. They lost. And now they’re trying to change the rules.”
James River issues
Troubled by the Bureau of Reclamation’s unchanging plan to channelize and destroy the James River, South Dakota’s Game, Fish and Parks Department in 1976 boldly proposed a different approach to managing the river in northern South Dakota. The agency wanted the state legislature to designate the river as a “Scenic and Recreational” river, offering protected status to specific stretches of the river that, in their view, contained unique and valued aquatic, terrestrial and scenic attributes. The proposal infuriated Oahe supporters, and the fight over whether or not to designate the river shook state government and the legislature. After a long and competitive political fight, Oahe opponents prevailed, and Game, Fish and Parks was blocked from its goal.
A 85-page booklet detailed plans by the state Game, Fish and Parks agency to protect the James River's natural resources. Four specific reaches of the river in northern South Dakota were identified as possessing unique and special characteristics. The booklet contains the following quote by an agency official: "...the Bureau of Reclamation has scheduled the river for the channelization as part of the Oahe Irrigation Project. Throughout the nation, channelization of a river is consider by soil, water and wildlife conservations to be one of the single most destructive acts that man can perform on the natural environment. It is our goal to prevent such action, and to project the river indefinitely from any such future destruction.
Oahe Dominates 1976 Legislature
The tenacity of United Family Farmers extended to its presence at the South Dakota legislature. The group sent supporters in waves to lobby for measures that might halt the Oahe irrigation project. The state’s political establishment repeatedly thwarted Oahe opponents, but the intense battles over proposals such as a moratorium on project construction and a referendum on the project, as well as the fate of the James River, dominated legislative sessions for many years.
Controversy Claims top Reporter
KELO-TV reporter Tom Schreiner was forced to resign after Oahe supporters complained about his coverage of the Oahe issue during the 1976 legislative session.