Conservation Conversation: A success story | Michigan Farm News

Conservation Conversation: A success story

Category: People

by Steve Law, Capacity Programs Manager, Michigan Association of Conservation Districts

Water erosion has devastated many acres of cropland and filled waterways with silt.

So many times, it seems as though programs designed to “help the people” are dreamed up in Washington or Lansing and launched on the unsuspecting population without the benefit of local guidance and leadership. Not so with Michigan’s Conservation Districts. The story of Conservation Districts is one of a successful long-term federal, state and local partnership.

The Dust Bowl provided the political will to create a new federal agency, the Soil Conservation Service, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service. This agency was created to work in states that had adopted the Standard Soil Conservation District law allowing for the creation of Conservation Districts at the local level, usually by County.

When these local Conservation Districts were created during the 30s, 40s and 50s, then-federal employees with special training in resource conservation through the planning and installation of many different conservation practices would be assigned to help the Conservation District with projects in their area of concern.

The Dust Bowl encouraged the development of a Federal, State and local conservation partnership.

The creation of a local Conservation District required that county commissioners agree to put the question on the ballot, and because there was so much support, most did just that.

Then, the people who made their livings on and cared for the land made the trek to the polling place and voted to create a Conservation District to serve their county. Today some 3,000 Conservation Districts provide local leadership in planning and installation of conservation measures across the nation.

Local leaders saw early on the need for a conservation district.

Conservation Districts are led by a group of 5 locally elected directors. These directors are responsible for developing a long-range business plan which, when implemented, will address the most pressing resource concerns in the county. They coordinate with many other local leaders and groups to get this job done.

No matter how serious one thinks our environmental problems are today, just imagine how much worse they would be without the ongoing efforts of these local leaders to bring in the technical and financial resources of the federal and state government and focus them on the resource conservation issues most important to the local people.

Conservation Districts are the “local delivery system” for a great many programs which provide technical and financial assistance to private landowners and operators.

Today, districts assist in the delivery of nearly $50 million of federal financial and technical assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. They also are the go-to organization when the state has programs which benefit water quality, wildlife or forestry on private land.

Michigan’s agriculture and forest products industry is a $119 billion sector of the state’s economy. Conservation districts deliver $6.2 million in Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development programs, such as the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), the Forestry Assistance Program, and the Habitat Incentive Program.

Conservation Districts have proven to be the lowest-cost and most effective way to get landowners to adopt new conservation practices which will benefit not only themselves but all the citizens of Michigan by keeping our soils healthy and productive, our waters clean, our forests and woodlands well managed and our wildlife plentiful.

Today, 75 Conservation Districts are serving all 83 counties in Michigan. Many districts are well-directed, funded and staffed, and as a result are able to deliver a greater share of federal and state financial and technical assistance to the residents of the county they serve. Others, unfortunately, are not doing as well, mostly due to a lack of operational funding. This is to the detriment of the landowners and the resources in the county.

Districts do not receive basic operational funding from either their federal or state government partners. Many districts do not even receive operating funds from the county in which they were created and which they serve. This lack of base funding drives districts toward grant writing, plant material sales and many other revenue-generating and project-funding activities to be able to carry out a local program. While writing grants and selling trees are not bad things, they may not result in the treatment of the most important resource concerns that could or should be the focus of their efforts.

The Michigan Association of Conservation Districts, which represents and serves Michigan’s Conservation Districts, has identified the lack of basic operational funding as the most important impediment for Districts in addressing natural resource issues locally as well as those at the State level.

Without operational funding, districts cannot complete the upfront investments to investigate resource issues and to plan and organize treatments which result in successful projects down the road.

For instance, a district recently led an effort to remove a failing dam on a major river. This effort took a great deal of time for district staff and directors and years to get permits, approvals and funding. Grants were needed to pay for the work. Grant funds are most often paid in arrears three to six months after the work has been done. Districts which are successful in pursuing grants need to be able to operate for that amount of time on their own funds in order to secure grant funded programs which are needed in their counties.

Districts plan and implement conservation practices like this buffer strip which keeps surface water clean and provide a home for wildlife.

The picture seems clear that if county and state leaders desire a low-cost and effective delivery system for conservation programs and technical assistance to protect and improve our natural resources on private lands, they will seriously consider providing a greater level of financial support for Conservation Districts.

Click to enlarge - The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service delivers financial assistance for conservation practices with and through the statewide network of Conservation Districts.

Anyone interested in getting involved with or learning more about their local conservation district is encouraged to attend a local board meeting, annual meeting or check out the website for more information about the excellent work being done locally by Michigan’s Conservation Districts.