Dynamo for development

Ask Peggy Blackman of Marion why she has such a passion for rural development projects and conservation, and she answers with a quick smile and a slight southern accent: “I appreciate the quality of life that rural Kansas and Marion County provides my family.

“And I want to preserve it for the future for my grandchildren and their children. In order to do that, I see we need to protect our natural resources which make up a vast part of our world.”

Blackman, 61, is president of the State Association of the Kansas Resource Conservation and Development Council.

The mission statement of RC& D reads: “To help the community improve their quality of life through mutual cooperation, wise use of natural resources and economic development.”

RC& D is partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide operational support to the council.

“It’s a program of the U.S.D.A. but not a division,” Blackman said. “It’s a line item on the federal budget. Funds are given to the NRCS department of the U.S.D.A., and from there it’s distributed to the councils across the nation.”

As a 501(c) (3) tax-exempt corporation, RC&D serves the Flint Hills council composed of Butler, Chase, Greenwood, Lyon, Marion and Morris counties.

The state association is supported by each of the six county commissions and conservation districts, and is made up of a 24-member board of four representatives from each county.

The Flint Hills Council is part of the southwest regional organization comprised of six states.

Blackman is involved on every level-local as a board member of Flint Hills Council, statewide as president of the state association and nationwide as the state representative for Kansas RC&D.

Born in Houston, Blackman was educated in a rural school outside the big city “in rice-growing country” and graduated from high school in 1958.

Although she had a scholarship to go to Sam Houston State University, she met future husband Leo on a blind date, and six months later they were married.

“I was going to devote my life to teaching young women and being a home-economics teacher, and I was told because I got married, I lost my scholarship,” Blackman said.

The couple moved to Kansas in 1972. When they drove down Main Street in Marion, she knew this was where she was meant to be, Blackman said. The Blackmans raised two sons and one daughter and now have seven grandchildren.

Her job with RC&D is non-paid volunteer work, but she does get expenses paid when she travels representing the state.

She and Leo are self-employed as sales contractors with Western Associates in Marion.

Blackman served three consecutive three-year terms as mayor of Marion from 1977 to 1986.

Her interest in conservation began in the late 1970s when as mayor she was concerned about the cost of treating the Marion ground water.

“We were looking for another source, and we began looking at the Marion Reservoir knowing it would decrease the cost to treat the water for our consumption,” Blackman said.

All was in place-the city had the proper water rights, and a successful bond issue was passed to bring the water to the treatment facility. But the state had put a moratorium on selling any of the water in the reservoir.

“We had to delay our construction project for almost a year, and this was at a time of extremely high interest rates,” Blackman said.

When the legislature opened for session, Blackman lobbied to lift the moratorium. She was successful and Marion received a 40-year contract.

“That started my interest in conservation issues and how it directly affects our lives here,” she said.

After her term as mayor, Blackman worked part-time as an independent insurance agent from 1986 to 1991.

It was during this time that she struggled with several personal health issues beginning in 1986 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

“I had less than a 15-percent chance to live, and I fought cancer until 1987 through surgery and chemotherapy,” Blackman said. “In 1998, my husband had triple by-pass surgery, in 1993 he had a minor heart attack and in September of that year, our son told us he had AIDS.”

Her son came home to be with his family during the remainder of his illness.

“I can’t say enough about this community and the way they supported our family through that time,” she said.

Her son eventually lost his battle with the disease, but Blackman said they had time to spend together “renewing our friendship.”

She worked as community coordinator for Marion from 1991 to 1995. And from 1995 to 2001, she started her own business-writing grants and consulting.

“I felt there was a need for rural communities to have someone at least to direct them to what door to knock on if they were seeking resources,” Blackman said.

She contracted with a group of people out of Nebraska, Jack Manske and Associates, who built homes in rural communities.

“And we built housing projects all over the state of Kansas from 1995 to 2001,” Blackman said.

In 1998, she was elected president of the State Association of Kansas RC&D. But during that time, she was also selected as a national board member at large.

“I found my duties to the national organization were not allowing me to fulfill my duties to the state-so I resigned,” she said.

She served as legislative liaison at the national level and first vice president representing the southwest region until 2000.

Her present two-year term as state president of the RC&D began in August, and she has the potential to serve an additional term.

Blackman is currently involved with several projects as RC&D Associa-tion president. The association coordinated and supported one of these projects-board development training-in five National Resource Conservation areas of the state.

And another project was developed through the Kansas Carbon Coalition. The state association initially explored the opportunity for farmers to earn credits through proper land management and then sell those credits for a profit. As interest waned on this project, it in turn sparked interest in global-warming issues and alternative fuels.

“So now we’re looking at the economic potential for our farmers out here to produce something like wheat stubble that would be utilized to burn rather than coal, gas or oil,” she said.

For the future, Blackman said she hopes to see the state with total council representation by 2005.

“So we’re trying to help our local situation-we’re totally grass roots led,” she said. “In my family as I was growing up, if we participated in a program, we supported that program.

“And I think some of my personal struggles with health-related issues have given me a greater strength and feeling of wanting to have a greater purpose and reason of why I’ve been given the opportunity to live in our world.”

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