KEARNEY — The man who embraced the challenge to lead the development of a unique Platte River Basin program to protect habitat used by threatened and endangered species died unexpectedly early today (Friday).
Jerry Kenny had served for more than a decade as Platte River Recovery Implement Program executive director. He formed a company — Kearney-based Headwaters Corp. — and built a staff of experts focused on program objectives.
Equally important, according to other program leaders, Kenny helped federal, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming partners move forward together on ideas that had been discussed and debated for decades.
"I think everybody is just in shock at this point," Nebraska Department of Natural Resources Director Jeff Fassett said Friday.
"Jerry’s death leaves a huge hole in our hearts and in our lives," said Bill Taddicken, director of at Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon. "His quick humor and sharp intellect were just two qualities that made him such a wonderful friend and an amazing partner in conservation."
Fassett, who is the new PRRIP Governance Committee chairman, said, "(Kenny) has been such a great leader of the program. He brought great credibility to this complicated program that was so controversial when it started."
Thanks to Kenny’s leadership for more than 10 years, it is the "quietest, least controversial" such effort in the country for Endangered Species Act compliance, Fassett added.
One reason, Fassett said, is that Kenny built into the program a good neighbor policy through which the PPRIP pays taxes, does things on a voluntary basis, is pro-active in working with landowners and allows public access on many habitat lands.
In a Sept. 3, 2007, Hub story published several weeks after he started as executive director, Kenny said a critical part of his new job was getting Nebraska landowners to understand that no one has authority to use condemnation or eminent domain to meet the program’s habitat goals.
"What we hope to do on the Platte River recovery could serve as a great example on how to do it right elsewhere," Kenny said. "First, we have to do it right. We have all the pieces."
Fassett said Friday the program is the most successful basinwide approach for ESA compliance. "Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says this is the way to go," he added. "It’s science based, credible and trusted by regulators and policymakers."
Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District General Manager Don Kraus of Holdrege described Kenny as a great guy who always seemed to have a lot of energy and was great for the Platte Program.
Kraus remembers the controversies swirling for years around talks about developing a three-state Platte Basin ESA compliance plan. Progress was made under a 1994 memorandum of understanding and 1997 cooperative agreement.
"It took us that long to get to that point" of hiring an executive director, he said.
"He (Kenny) just stood out as an individual who would bring the scientific element to the program," Kraus said about interviews with executive director applicants, and who also had the ability to bring the interest groups together. "He put his nose to the grindstone ... and made great progress on all fronts."
The first 13-year increment goal to protect land habitat in the Central Platte region for threatened and endangered species has been met, Kraus said, and progress has been made on the more difficult water component and on adaptive management to ensure projects meet the goals set.
"Jerry has been an invaluable part of finding solutions for Platte River water issues and creating collaboration on difficult problems," Taddicken said. "He will be irreplaceable in this ongoing work to create a bright future for the Platte River."
Kenny grew up on a family farm near Red Cloud, graduated from Red Cloud High School in 1973, earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1977, and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Washington State University.
He spent much of his engineering career in Colorado, including at the Denver office of Omaha-based HDR engineering from 2001 until taking the Platte Program job in June 2007.
"He really created what we have," Fassett said, including an outstanding program headquarters staff of people Kenny trusted.
Fassett said the PRRIP executive director position seemed to be Kenny’s dream job, partly because it allowed him to come home to south-central Nebraska.
When asked in 2007 why he accepted the job, Kenny said the challenge of turning a plan for the Platte Basin into a successful habitat protection program was appealing.
"Not to be overly dramatic," he said, "but it seemed to be the culmination of everything my personal and professional life had been leading to."