For a lot of boys who find themselves living in a new place, first chance they get they’re searching out the nearest woods, nature’s playground.

Next up? Finding the closest creek that flows through that adventure land where a carpet of rich soil softens your step and nourishes that natural terrarium covered by a layer of treetops.

That’s not just a guy thing, as Blount Countians are finding out.

“That’s me,” Julie Konkel said during a phone interview after the Blount County Soil Conservation District held its 62nd annual Conservation Awards Banquet Oct. 18 at William Blount High School.

That a girl would take to the woods as naturally as any boy gives a clue to the passion she brings to her new job with the conservation district.

How new, you might ask. Well, she’s been on the job since July 2. As for the job, it’s a newborn, too. Watershed coordinator is a brand new position at the Blount district. In fact, Konkel is the first watershed coordinator in the state of Tennessee. Erich Henry, Director of Conservation for Blount County, worked for years trying to get the position authorized.

“He envisioned somebody with rich technical experience” Konkel said. “Also, somebody who could communicate with different stakeholders and different organizations across the community to engage in efforts for natural resource conservation.”

It was a job that fit Konkel to a “T.” No brag, just fact, as the evidence indicates. She has a background in natural resource management. She talks with students, civic clubs, city planners, farmers, road superintendents and highway departments — anyone who has an interest in or bumps up against conversation issues. And that’s just about everybody. It’s all about getting people excited about soil quality and conservation, and she’s ventured far afield in order to do that.

“One year I talked to community groups in Greenland and spoke on how to clean up Denmark,” said.

She paused a moment. “I probably shouldn’t say this.” The listener on the phone line let the next pause linger. Then it slipped out.

“Getting a royal entourage excited about soil science is a true litmus test for communication.”

Indeed. Which brings her far south of the land of ice to Blount County nestled between the Great Smokies and the Tennessee River. Not a bad place to land for a fan of the earth.

It didn’t happen by accident. When it comes to communication, Konkel is more than just a good talker. She’s credentialed, holding a doctorate from the University of Tennessee Department of Geography with specialties in watershed processes and nutrition cycling. Toward the end of Henry’s years of lobbying for the watershed coordinator position, Konkel took on the task of helping to write up a couple of grants for a contract employee for the job.

As the Gershwin show tune lyrics go: “Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try.” Konkel did more than try, she got it. “This is the kind of job I was always looking for.”

She said she appreciates the efforts of all the winners and others who contribute to preserving the environment in Blount County.

“So many clients have done so much to protect our natural resources, an annual banquet is not enough to recognize their efforts.”

She especially appreciates that the people who make her own efforts worthwhile are all volunteers.

“We provide direction and resources but it’s the people in the community who make it happen.”

On to the awards:

Albert Coning, Chairman, opened the awards ceremony. District Supervisor Andy Daugherty recognized students who participated in the 2018 Envirothon which is a regional environmental education contest. Students compete as a team on a wide range of environmental topics including soils, forestry, aquatics,and wildlife habitat.

Five regional high schools representing nine teams participated in the 2018 Envirothon held at Holston River Park in Knoxville. William Blount and Heritage high schools took home the first-, second- and third-place trophies.

Students for each team:

• First Place — William Blount Team 1: Daniel Lamphere, Josh Holt, Dallas Yates, Brye Trull and Jacob Lane.

• Second Place — Heritage High School Team 1: Lorena Lowe, Kati Lowe, Jarrett Tallent, Brooklyn Gurley and Lauren Joiner.

• Third Place — Heritage High School Team 2: Zack Wolfe, Brianna Baker, Kamryn Christopher, Emily Smelcer and Caden Branch.

Students from William Blount competed in the statewide Envirothon competition, which is sponsored by the Smoky Mountain Resource Conservation and Development Council.

On with the banquet

Henry introduced Konkel, the district’s newest employee, who is a former soil and water quality scientist with UT and has conducted research within the U.S. as well as the grasslands of Ecuador to the icecaps of Greenland. Her role as watershed coordinator is multi-faceted, including program development and management, outreach and education, advanced soil health monitoring, and assisting county and city entities with environmental issues.

Konkel introduced the keynote speaker Dave Culver, environmental resource scientist with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, who spoke on “TDOT Watershed Needs & Solutions”.

Culver stated that in addition to building and maintaining roadways, TDOT understands that as a public servant to Tennessee communities, it is also charged with protecting and conserving our natural resources. As a result, for every linear foot of stream that is impacted by road construction or improvement activities, TDOT is committed to restoring or enhancing one or more linear feet of creek, stream, or river within the same watershed.

In fact, no roadway project that affects any surface water can move forward until a conservation plan is in place, according to regulations. This practice, known as stream mitigation, ensures that our roads remain safe, our waters stay clean, and our local wildlife habitat remains intact.

In order to mitigate for an impacted stream, however, TDOT must find another stream to restore within the same watershed. As the majority of land area in Tennessee is private property this can be a challenging task. The TDOT mitigation office has thus begun working with local communities and entities, such as the Blount County Soil Conservation District, to find streams, creeks, and rivers eligible for improvements through mitigation programing.

Multiple awards were presented to those individuals that excelled in improving environmental conditions within the county. 2018 Award winners included:

• James Robertson — Conservation Cooperator Award:

“The grooves in the creek bank were 5-feet deep,” states James Robertson as to why he installed an alternative watering system to repair an eroding stream bank on his farm located in the Ninemile Creek Watershed.

Consisting of pipeline, freeze-proof tanks, and heavy use area protection, the water system provides a source of water in each paddock to Robertson’s stocker calves as they rotate from one field to the next via interior Cross fencing, allowing forage to adequately regrow before being grazed again.

An Access Control Fence along the stream provides another grazing paddock during the growing season while protecting sensitive riparian areas from overgrazing. Mr. Robertson participated in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQiP) as administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help implement these practices.

• Bobby White — Conservation Cooperator Award:

Better control of livestock and pasture were just two of the goals that Bobby White wanted to achieve for his farms located in the Nails Creek Watershed. These goals were accomplished in part by implementing woven wire Cross-fencing to subdivide larger fields, allowing for additional paddock shifts and to improve forage quality.

“I wanted to get the livestock out of the plastic water tubs and stop repairing float valves,” stated White in regard to the Alternative Watering System which included freeze-proof tanks that supply livestock drinking water to each of the fields.

An access control fence along a tributary of Nails Creek now allows for enhanced riparian vegetation which filters upstream pollutants. The fencing also provides greater control of White’s livestock which include pure-bred Red Belted Galloways, White Parks, zebus, donkeys, camels, and a zebra.

• Jason Miller — Dedicated Service Award:

“I want to assist the landowners in improving the natural resources on their farms,” stated Jason Miller who is a 16-year veteran with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Serving both Blount and Monroe Counties as the NRCS district conservationist he has dramatically increased cost-share approval for federal farm bill and state-funded programs. A specialist in utilizing high tunnels to extend the growing season and creating additional marketing opportunities for vegetable crops, Miller’s technical expertise extends to beef, dairy, and cropland environments.

A native of western Kentucky, he and wife, Amanda, and their three children reside in McMinn County.

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