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Posted 9/30/2015

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By Jennifer Salak, Outreach Specialist
USACE Omaha District, Planning Branch

Over the past 36 years, Steve Rothe’s contribution to the Omaha District’s ecosystem restoration mission has been second to none. Drawing on his undergraduate and graduate-level education in Biology and experience as a Biology Teacher with the Peace Corps in Kenya, Steve launched his career with the Corps as an Environmental Resources Specialist in the Environmental Analysis Branch of the Omaha District’s Planning Division in 1979. After working on many diverse environmentally-related projects for 12 years, Steve transferred to the Plan Formulation Branch in 1991 as a Plan Formulator/Project Manager responsible for managing ecosystem restoration projects, including the first Section 206 (Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration) and first large-scale Section 1135 (Project Modifications for Improvement of the Environment) projects in the country.

As the Corps continued to ramp up its capability to implement the National Environmental Policy Act and related legislation in the 1970s, Steve was hired, sight unseen by the Environmental Analysis Branch Chief, to assist the District with assessing the impacts of its actions on the environment, in accordance with this ground-breaking legislation. Steve conducted environmental assessments for proposed oil and gas development and utility and pipeline projects, on federal land at the six Missouri River Mainstem Projects, and conducted Section 404(b)(1) analysis of Clean Water Act permit applications to ensure proposed work would not detrimentally affect water quality or the environment. Steve also assisted in assessing the biological and human environment in order to update the Fort Peck Master Plan, a document guiding the appropriate uses, development, enhancement, protection and conservation of natural, manmade and cultural resources at the Fort Peck Dam and Reservoir Project.

Also during his days in the Environmental Analysis Branch, Steve led several Section 22 (Planning Assistance to States) studies in 1989 and 1990, both sponsored by the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (NRD). These studies identified several optimum locations and conceptual designs for ecosystem restoration projects along the Missouri River in six Nebraska counties. The results of the Section 22 studies soon provided the Omaha District and the NRD with the groundwork to collaborate on implementing one of the studies’ identified projects. In 1991, the Corps received initial funding in its Section 1135 authority. That same year, Steve had transferred to the position of Plan Formulator/Project Manager in the Plan Formulation Branch, bringing with him the in-depth experience gained while working in the Environmental Analysis Branch. Under Steve’s leadership, the Boyer Chute project in Washington County, Nebraska became the first large-scale Section 1135 project in the Nation and the NRD’s first “Back to the River” project, an initiative aimed at getting the public reconnected with the Missouri River.

In addition to the Boyer Chute project, which was awarded as the “Omaha District Planning Team of the Year” in 1994, Steve effectively managed portions or all of several other Section 1135 projects throughout his career. The Hidden Lake/Great Marsh project in Nebraska also was awarded “Planning Team of the Year” by the Omaha District.

Steve’s environmental expertise also allowed him to successfully lead several Section 206 projects, including the first one in the Nation, a wetlands project at Nathan’s Lake in Nebraska. Steve’s most recent study effort led to a Section 206 project along the Cache la Poudre River near Greeley, Colorado, and earned him Omaha District’s “Planner of the Year Award.” The team’s effort earned them the “Planning Team of the Year Award.” In true team leader fashion, upon learning of the awards Steve thanked all of his team members and provided them with accolades for their hard work and dedication. According to Dave Brandon, Chief of the Economic, Cultural Resources and Planning Quality Review Section of the Planning Branch, “not only has he been an exemplary team leader, but Steve has proven to be a patient and effective mentor for many less experienced Plan Formulators and Project Managers over the years. He is widely respected as the Senior Environmental Restoration Planner and one of the best writers and reviewers in the Omaha District.”

Steve also believed very strongly in the power of communication. As the Corps’ ecosystem restoration mission was developing and guidance for the Section 206 and 1135 authorities was evolving, Steve saw the need for increased communication between districts conducting this type of work. He identified staff members responsible for ecosystem restoration projects in each district and, with the help of Information Management, created a national listserve where members could ask questions and help each other navigate through new processes and guidance. At any one time, there were 200-250 members on the listserve which included District, Division and Headquarters-level staff. Eric Laux, Chief of the Environmental Resources and MRRP Plan Formulation Section, remembers how invaluable the tool was when he first started his environmental career with the Corps in the late 90s. “At the time Steve developed the listserve, we didn’t have collaboration software or communities of practice, so this tool allowed people across the agency to come together and work through environmental issues and emerging guidance. He was really ahead of his time.”

Not only did Steve give 110 percent to the District as a Plan Formulator/Project Manager, but he volunteered for special assignments as well in order to improve the lives of others. He traveled with an Omaha District team to Swaziland in Africa for several weeks, to provide District support to a USAID mission investigating irrigation opportunities and impacts. Steve used his in-depth knowledge of biology and African culture, along with experience developing environmental assessments, to effectively look at the impacts of building a large-scale irrigation system consisting of dams and canals. His assessment included a detailed look at the impacts of bilharzia, a disease caused by parasites whose secondary hosts are snails, which commonly inhabit irrigation canals in tropical countries, posing a risk to the local people who also are drawn to those canals for water.

Steve’s passion for the environment didn’t stop with his Corps work. He also served on a Land Management Advisory Committee for Fontenelle Forest, a 1,400-acre forest that provides outdoor education opportunities in Bellevue, Nebraska. As part of his work with the Committee, Steve helped study the feasibility of various deer population control methods. Fontenelle Forest (now Fontenelle Nature Association) reviewed the Committee’s research, selected controlled hunting as the preferred method, reached out to the public, and began implementing a controlled hunt, which has now greatly improved the forest’s ecosystem.

For the past decade, Steve also served as a technical advisor to the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET); while doing so, he drew upon others in the District for their expertise. The NET is a state program, funded by the lottery, dedicated to the preservation of Nebraska’s natural resources. As a technical advisor, Steve provided review and comments on whether projects seeking funding through the Environmental Trust were technically sound. 

Whether it be his work for the Corps, his time spent with the Peace Corps and other federal agencies prior to the Corps, or his volunteer environmental work, Steve has been a true public servant to the Nation for close to 40 years. When asked about his time with the Corps, Steve responded, “I feel very honored to have worked for such a great agency with so many smart people. I’ve been coming to Planning on the 7th floor for over 30 years – it’s going to be a big change but I’m looking forward to retirement.” Steve’s retirement became effective September 30, 2015 and the new chapter in his life will include spending more time with family, gardening and traveling.