Dick Everhart is retiring later this year as district conservationist for Surry County, but his longtime work — and passion — for local streams and other environmental assets will continue to flow.
Since 1979, Everhart’s job with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal government agency formerly known as the Soil Conservation Service, has made him a fixture among farms, rivers and forests. And if you ask him, he’ll tell you it’s a “natural” fit.
“I’ve always just really liked the outdoors,” Everhart, 55, who became district conservationist in Surry in 1989, said during an interview last week.
Appropriately, it was conducted at a picnic shelter of Mount Airy’s Riverside Park, where in the background heavy machinery could be heard working along the nearby Ararat River. A stream-restoration project underway there is one of several involving Everhart’s agency now occurring at various locations around Mount Airy.
“I’m real thrilled about this project,” he said of the effort on the Ararat, which involves repairing eroded banks while also providing new kayaking, greenway and other ecotourism activities along its circuitous path through the city.
“This type of project benefits everybody,” Everhart added in reference to not only fishermen or swimmers, but everyone affected by the presence of a healthy water resource. That includes the veteran conservationist himself, who counts fishing and canoeing among his hobbies.
“I love water — I’ve always loved water,” he said.
Direct economic benefits are resulting as well. “There’s a lot of people working on this project right now,” Everhart said of an effort he also thinks has the potential to make the Ararat River through Mount Airy one of the best fishing hatcheries in Surry County.
While he is certainly excited by the projects he is involved with, Dick Everhart has a way of translating that enthusiasm to others, according to individuals familiar with his work.
“It’s a labor of love, I think is the way I would look at it,” Terry Garwood, an extension agent with the local N.C. Cooperative Extension Service specializing in horticulture, said of Everhart’s role. “He likes what he does and he demonstrates that in everything he does.”
Garwood, who has worked in Surry County for 18 years, said he has been impressed with Everhart’s “passion for conservation” and hard work. “He believes in what he’s talking about,” Garwood continued, often taking a hands-on approach to protect natural resources.
Original Retirement Date Delayed
Everhart had hoped to retire from the federal government agency on July 1, under a plan forged with his wife Suzanne, a 20-year employee of the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center. However, that timetable was based on no meltdowns occurring in either the stock market or real estate market — two things that once seemed unlikely, but now have occurred with troublesome fallout on the economy.
“So we decided we’d just stay through the year,” Everhart said with a shrug. “January 1st (2010) will be my last day, which is a holiday, so it will actually be December 31st.”
However, his “official retirement” from the federal job won’t signal Dick Everhart’s departure from Surry County’s environmental scene. He still expects to be involved with local natural resource protection, but in a different capacity.
“My plans are to work with some of the non-profits like I have been doing for the past 10 years,” Everhart explained of agencies such as Pilot View Inc. in Winston-Salem which have had an increasing presence in environmental-protection projects in recent years.
As he maintains a role in local resource conservation, the county will continue to benefit from his expertise, while Everhart will carry on a longtime appreciation of nature. He said that love of the outdoors spawned his long career of helping to safeguard Mother Nature’s assets from erosion, pollution, over-development and other threats.
Everhart, who was born in Graham and had family ties in the Lexington/Davidson County area, developed this quality early in life. “I think part of it was that growing up, our vacations were camping,” he recalled of experiences with a pop-up camper that accompanied his family on memorable excursions in multiple states.
Although he was born in North Carolina, Everhart was raised in upstate New York and Oklahoma, and lived in other locations as well due to his father being employed by General Electric. “So we moved from one GE plant to the next, depending on what was going on,” he said. The family also included two brothers, who have remained in New York state.
After high school, Everhart attended Hobart College, a liberal-arts school in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he majored in ecology and environmental sciences.
But upon graduating in 1976, he found himself in the same position as many departing college students — wondering just what path his life would take next. Everhart opted to return to the Tar Heel State, at least for a visit, but the short stay has turned into 30-plus years and counting. “I got down here and just fell in love with the area,” he explained.
“I came into North Carolina with nothing but a pack on my back,” recalled Everhart, who relied on hitchhiking as a means of travel.
Initially, he worked as a brick mason helper in Statesville, but later applied for an opening with the Iredell County Soil and Water Conservation District as soil and water technologist. “At that time, I had almost no experience with farms,” Everhart admitted, regarding the agency’s primary client base. But the young applicant assured his eventual employers that he was a hard worker who was willing to learn and to work cheap.
“I knew in the first month that this was what I pretty much wanted to do,” Everhart said of his initial experience in the conservation field.
He later took a soils course that was required to work for the federal government. And ironically, the professor who taught it to him at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earlier had lived right down the street from Everhart in upstate New York.
A Part Of History
After about two years with the Iredell County Soil and Water Conservation District, Everhart joined the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (SCS) in 1979. That agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, later was renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service, reflecting its broadened emphasis on water, wildlife habitats and other resources in addition to soil.
The SCS had been formed in 1933 as the Soil Erosion Service to carry out conservation programs in response to the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl on farmland.
Since the 1930s, only three people have held the title of district conservationist in Surry County. The first was J.E. Trevathan, who came here as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps program established through President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He remained at the post until the 1960s, when Fred Patterson took over. Patterson retired in 1989, and Everhart then became district conservationist.
Everhart manages the day-to-day activities of the office and helps provide financial and technical assistance to landowners for managing and improving natural resources.
In earlier years, the Natural Resources Conservation Service specialized in helping farmers implement strip-cropping, crop-rotation and other practices to preserve soil quality. The former SCS also was well-known for aiding landowners in obtaining ponds for irrigation and other purposes. “We’re not doing pond work anymore,” Everhart said, mentioning that the agency once handled about 30 pond developments per year.
More recently, it has added other programs that don’t necessarily involve farming, although Everhart said Surry County still has a “very vibrant” agricultural presence. “I think that while farming is still our focus, we’ve branched out quite a bit,” he said. This has included efforts to improve stream quality and prevent loss of land from streambank erosion, and enhancement of aquatic and wildlife habitats.
For example, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program offered through the federal agency is a voluntary effort in which property owners develop and improve habitats on agricultural land on a cost-share basis. This program has allowed former fescue fields to be converted to natural grasses that promote small game such as rabbits or quail.
Another, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, helps landowners implement long-term no-till practices to protect the soil along with alternate irrigation systems to safeguard water quality.
One way alternative water systems have aided the community is by providing a means of watering beef cattle other than having them drink from streams bordering pastures. Along with improving stream quality, such alternatives also allow more efficient grazing practices since the cattle aren’t just eating the grass near the waterways, but in the entire field.
“Animal waste has been a big issue,” Everhart said of a chief focus of his agency in recent years. The state has required large livestock farms to comply with certain standards aimed at preventing pollution from runoff and other environmental problems surrounding waste management among dairy, poultry and swine operations.
The agency’s present involvement with preventing streambank erosion took root about 15 years ago when landowners began experiencing erosion problems. But about the only solution in those days was applying riprap, made of rock pieces or similar materials used to shore up banks. Everhart said he didn’t like that alternative himself, and it wasn’t popular among property owners, either.
However, streambank restoration has entered another realm in the last 12 to 15 years with the emergence of natural stream design. That method, now being employed with the Ararat River project, makes use of large rocks, plants and other natural features strategically placed to control water flow away from banks. It results in a solution that doesn’t resemble anything man-made.
“Another issue is, it is expensive, and the money wasn’t there in the past,” Everhart said of the increased emphasis on stream restoration made possible in recent years. The federal government, as well as state and local agencies and non-profit entities, have directed more resources to the problem, recognizing its importance to communities.
Private companies, such as North State Environmental, which actually carry out the work under the guidance of governmental agencies, also have become proficient in implementing conservation measures, Everhart said.
“So we’ve got the resources now, and it’s good to see them come together.”
This year, more than $1 million have been distributed for streambank restoration through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s district office on Cooper Street in Dobson, which covers both Surry and Yadkin counties. While that benefits individual landowners experiencing problems with streams, “in all cases it benefits the public at large, too,” Everhart said.
Sediment from streambank erosion is a big problem for public utility treatment systems, the conservationist said of one way conservation projects aid society in general.
Everhart is happy about the local, state and federal coordination that combines on projects such as the Ararat River restoration. Each entity has its own concerns, such as the recreational resources envisioned by the city of Mount Airy, and the water- or soil-quality objectives of state and federal agencies. Each manages to integrate its concerns toward completing a common mission.
“So we’re all tied together — we all work together,” Everhart said.
Everhart said that despite many environmental-friendly developments in recent times, rural areas such as Surry County are at a critical stage.
“To me, really, the biggest issue we’re facing is population,” he said. As population grows, it becomes more important to take care of the natural resources in the face of increasing demands, Everhart explained. “Those issues are going to be more and more critical.” When the economy is suffering as it is now, a desire for needed jobs could compromise environmental protections, he added.
If Surry County’s quality of life is important to citizens, now is the time to take action rather than after precious resources are gone, the district conservationist believes.
Efforts to protect traditional farmland are a big issue in Surry among people who are concerned about the long-term use of their property and fear major development. Some choose to have conservation easements put on their land through the Piedmont Land Conservancy, which ensures it can never be used for anything but farming.
Everhart, who lives on a former farm along the south fork of the Mitchell River, has practiced what he preaches in that regard, by having an easement placed on part of his property. He also has worked to help ensure the Mitchell’s presence as one of the cleanest streams found anywhere.
When he moved to the site in 1989, it was right after community residents there had achieved the Outstanding Resources Waters designation for the Mitchell River, in response to a high-density development upstream. Their efforts have led to thousands of acres of land being protected, along with many miles of the river and its tributaries.
Everhart said his association with and appreciation for the Mitchell River has stemmed from multiple factors. “Part of it was just my love for rivers in general, and part of it was the commitment of the community,” he said. “There is a passion over there in the community to protect that river.”
Affected agencies are trying to apply what has been learned with the Mitchell River to other local waterways such as the Fisher and Ararat rivers. What’s happened in Surry also has attracted attention in other parts of the state and nation, Everhart added.
After retiring later this year, the Everharts — who have three grown children, John, Mary and Sam — plan to do much traveling, both in the U.S. and foreign countries, although he still will be devoting a portion of his time to conservation.
Everhart said that while he is looking forward to retirement from the federal agency, he also will be glad to continue his involvement in ongoing local projects on a private basis. “I’ve gotten to do a lot with many non-profit groups,” he said of entities he has worked with through the years.
And given the modern state of national resources, which are constantly threatened by development and pollution, this area will benefit by having someone such as Dick Everhart in the fight. “I think we’ve made a lot of headway,” he said.
“I think there’s still a long way to go.”
Contact Tom Joyce at email@example.com or at 719-1924.