Small But Mighty Team Protects Oklahoma Communities … With Small But Mighty Machines

Published on September 15, 2022

A six-person crew is responsible for conserving, protecting and restoring Oklahoma’s natural resources — a tall order for a modest group. The crew maintains 64 conservation districts and 2,107 watershed dams with Bobcat T300 and T700 compact track loaders. Read how they were able to cut costs and gain efficiency by investing in their own small fleet.

A six-person crew is responsible for conserving, protecting and restoring Oklahoma’s natural resources — a tall order for a modest group. The crew maintains 64 conservation districts and 2,107 watershed dams. 

Oklahoma’s watersheds help prevent flooding and address a variety of public needs. They bolster the water supply and quality, improve soil health, assist with water management and wetland enhancement, create a suitable environment for wildlife and fish, and provide outdoor recreation amenities.  

Yet, there is a fundamental challenge with these watershed dams: When they were initially built in the 1950s, they were designed to last only 50 years.  

Over time, the watersheds fill with silt and become overgrown with trees, reducing their effectiveness. That’s where the Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) watershed maintenance team comes in. And, that tall order becomes easier with Bobcat® compact equipment.  

“On some of the dams we’ve been on, the trees are so thick they look like hair on a dog’s back,” says George Moore, watershed technician for the OCC. “We start with our six guys, put three on each side of the dam and they just start working the whole thing. When they get done, it looks like the dam has been mowed completely.” 

Cutting costs, gaining efficiency 

Going from an overcrowded dam to a cleared one is never an easy job. Due to the sheer volume of need, the OCC previously worked with independent contractors to tackle tree removal. “We could probably spend millions of dollars every year on watershed maintenance. But investing in our own equipment has allowed our own guys to go out and do most of the work,” says Tammy Sawatzky, conservation programs director for the OCC.  

The OCC started out with five Bobcat T300 compact track loaders in 2010 and has since expanded and retooled its fleet to include 14 Bobcat T770 compact track loaders. The team credits Tammy for securing the public funding needed to trade in and upgrade their equipment, which continues to provide value across the state. “If we’re not using the compact track loaders (on watershed work), they’re running in the district somewhere. There is always something to do with them, whether clearing trees or fixing cattle trails,” George says.  

“There is no shortage of work to be done out there,” Tammy adds. “Having our own equipment allows us to complete projects more efficiently and for less money.” That is a critical combination for a government organization. 

Working across 45 million acres 

Not using outside contractors means that George and his fellow watershed technician, Johnny Pelley, travel the entire state of Oklahoma to help maintain the watershed dams. They’ll pack up their 30-foot gooseneck trailer with a compact track loader and a variety of Bobcat-approved attachments on a Monday morning, drive to the district in need, and get to work on as many jobsites as they can with the local conservation team in the allotted timeframe.  

“We will be in the field by 7 a.m. and don’t shut down until dark,” George says. “We’ll come back home on a Thursday evening, having cleared anywhere from five to seven dams while on site.” 

George and Johnny utilize a full lineup of Bobcat attachments to mow through these jobsites quickly and effectively. In addition to the forestry applications kit and drum mulcher attachment, they have brush saws, mowers, stump grinders, dozer blades, augers and root grapples, which make quick work out of cutting down trees, shredding debris and stockpiling wood. Or, as George simply puts, “We do it all. We maintain the whole dam.” 

Working on the side of a dam has its share of environmental challenges. Depending on how long a watershed dam has been left, the OCC team might have to maneuver around rocks, cut down larger trees or operate on sandy soil. “The fortunate thing is we have good equipment,” Johnny says. “If we didn’t have good equipment, we would be in a lot of trouble.” 

The fortunate thing is we have good equipment. If we didn’t have good equipment, we would be in a lot of trouble.

Johnny Pelley

Watershed Technician / OCC

A vital link in the Oklahoma ecosystem 

Yet, with even the best equipment, the OCC team can still run into a few challenges. “Ray (Lowery) at Bobcat (of Oklahoma City) is our go-to guy,” George says. “If we have an issue, we call him, and he works it out quickly.” 

Johnny agrees. “Bobcat of Oklahoma City has two service trucks. If we’re ever broken down in the field, we can call and there’s a good chance a service truck can come to wherever we are. That’s been a huge help to us. Ray has the technology and the know-how to keep things moving.” 

The OCC’s mission to conserve, protect and restore can’t be put on pause. Since the small and mighty team is responsible for maintaining all 2,107 watershed dams, downtime is a nonstarter — not only so the team can stick to their rigorous work schedule, but also so they can effectively serve their communities. 

“These watersheds provide tremendous monetary benefits back to our people,” George says. “And, if the dams weren’t there, we would have flooding like they had back in the ’30s and ’40s.”  

In addition to protecting crops and farmland, some of the dams also protect lives and reduce damage to buildings, agricultural products, roads, bridges and other vital aspects of daily life. “That’s why we have to keep them up,” George adds. “And we can do it ourselves thanks to Bobcat machines.” 

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