About Conservation Districts

Conservation Districts’ History and Origins

A black blizzard over Prowers Co., Colorado, 1937. (Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma)

A black blizzard over Prowers Co., Colorado, 1937. (Western History Collection, University of Oklahoma)

In the early 1930’s, along with the greatest depression this nation ever experienced, came an equally unparalleled ecological disaster known as the Dust Bowl. Following a severe drought in the Great Plains, coupled with unsustainable farming practices that exposed the prairie’s topsoil and destroyed its native grasses, the region’s soil began to erode and blow away, creating huge black dust storms. These storms grew so enormous that they blotted out the sun and swallowed the countryside. The storms stretched across the nation, south to Texas and east to New York. Dust even sifted into the White House and onto the desk of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In order to reach water sources and survive periodic fires praire plants place 75-80% of their living material underground. This unique adaptation makes them both extremely drought and fire resistant but also keeps soils intact during times of prolonged drought. This underground plant material also contributed to the abounding fertility of the prairies when settlers first arrived on the Great Plains.

In order to reach water sources and survive periodic fires praire plants place 75-80% of their living material underground. This unique adaptation makes them both extremely drought and fire resistant but also keeps soils intact during times of prolonged drought. This underground plant material also contributed to the abounding fertility of the prairies when settlers first arrived on the Great Plains.

On Capitol Hill, while testifying about the erosion problem, soil scientist Hugh

Hammond Bennett threw back the curtains to reveal a sky blackened by dust. Contress unanimously passed legislation declaring soil and water conservation a national policy and priority. Since about three-fourths of the continental United States is privately owned, Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private land. In 1937, President Roosevelt wrote the governors of all the states recommending legislation that would allow local landowners to form soil conservation districts.

Operation

Conservation districts are political subdivisions of the state of Montana, governed by a board of elected supervisors. Funding for the operation and conservation activities of each district comes from a maximum of 1.5 mills levied on real property within the boundaries of the district. The annual conservation district budget this millage produces varies from $2,500 in less populated counties to $100,000 in counties with a greater population base. In most cases, funding is inadequate to meet the goals of districts, so they rely heavily on grants and other creative funding sources.

Across the state, 58 conservation districts – one in every county – are helping local people match their interests and needs with the technical and financial resources necessary to put conservation practices on the land. For more information, contact the Montana Association of Conservation Districts, Helena, MT. 

Montana Association of Conservation Districts (MACD)

MACD created in 1942, is the conservation districts’ private, nonprofit association. Governed by a statewide board of district supervisors, MACD:

  • Serves as a collective voice for policy and legislation that affects the conservation districts;
  • Works with state agencies and the legislature to help direct natural resource policy;
  • Is an information clearinghouse for and between the districts and raises public awareness of the CD’s activities.

Conservation and Resource Development Division (CARDD)

CARDD in the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has duties specifically established in state statute to:

  • Assist supervisors in carrying out their authorities and programs;
  • Facilitate an interchange of information, activities, and cooperation between CD’s;
  • Administer financial assistance programs for CD’s; and,
  • Provide a link to the state government essential to the continued successful operations of CD’s.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

NRCS works side-by-side with CD’s to provide science-based technical assistance on Montana’s private lands. With 60 field offices across the state, NRCS provides:

  • Agronomists, biologists, soil scientists, engineers, and range conservationists to help solve natural resource problems on-site.
  • Natural resource data, information and planning assistance to individuals, CD’s, and other local groups.

What do the Conservation Districts Do?

The 310 Law

The Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act, also known as “The 310 Law,” is administered by the Conservation Districts.

    • Any individual or corporation proposing construction in a perennial stream must apply for a 310 permit through the local conservation district.
    • A district supervisor and representatives from the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (DFWP) inspect the site to make sure the integity of the stream is maintained.
    • 310 permits are then approved based on the inspection and the scope of the project.

More information on 310 permits can be found here. If you have any questions or would like to pick up a permit form in person, please visit us during business hours at 109 Railroad Ave, East, Roundup, MT 59072.

Water Quality

Conservation Districts:

  • Are the local contact for the control of non-point source (NPS) pollution.
  • Conduct projects demonstrating NPS pollution control practices.
  • Prefer voluntary, educational, and incentive-base approaches to regulatory approaches.
  • Work with state and federal agencies to identify problem areas and prioritize treatment.

Riparian Management

Riparian and wetland areas are vitally important parts of the landscape. Good management of these areas is critical to a healthy environment. To accomplish this, conservation districts:

    • Sponsor stream restoration projects;
    • Conduct landowner workshops;
    • Produce and distribute educational materials; and,
    • Hold demonstrations and tours of riparian management techniques and projects

Federal Conservation Programs

Conservation districts work very closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) to provide local direction for the administration of federal conservation programs. Some of these programs are:

  • The Conservation Reserve Program;
  • The Wetlands Reserve Program;
  • The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program; and,
  • The Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Urban Conservation

With the rapid increase in subdivided acreages, and the resource issues associated with these small tracts, districts have recently taken on a new role. Below are some examples:

  • Hosting workshops and producing educational materials for new landowners;
  • Operating recycling programs; and,
  • Pooling technical expertise from various agencies to provide services like soil surveys and water disposal information to planning commissioners, municipal officers, and others.

Resource Conservation and Development

Conservation district supervisors have joined with private individuals and local, state, and federal government to initiate community-led rural development efforts. Seven of these Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Areas now operate in Montana, encompassing 51 of the state’s 56 counties.

Conservation Education

Districts work with schools to develop conservation education curricula and outdoor classrooms by:

  • Coordinating technical and financial assistance and providing teaching aids; and,
  • Sponsoring kids’ conservation field days and annual camps. Some of these include:
    • Natural Resource Youth Camp;
    • Montana Youth Range Camp;
    • Montana Range Days; and,
    • Montana Envirothon.

Watershed Planning

  • Locally led groups tackling local and regional natural resource management issues on a river basin or watershed basis.
  • Districts are often instrumental in drawing people and resources together to assist the development of these groups.

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