Conservation districts are units of local government designed to help citizens conserve their soil, water, and other renewable natural resources. They were organized in the 1930s as a response to the “Dust Bowl” days. In 1937, President Roosevelt encouraged Montana to adopt legislation enabling the creation of local soil conservation districts. Today, there are almost 3000 conservation districts nationwide, and their conservation activities encompass a wide spectrum of natural resource issues.The State Montana passed legislation creating its conservation districts in 1939 to provide for local control of natural resource management programs and activities. Montana’s 58 conservation districts cover all counties and include more than 70 municipalities included within district boundaries.
Montana’s CDs are political subdivisions of the state and are governed by a board of five supervisors elected by local voters in a general election. In addition, a municipality that has chosen to be incorporated into a district may appoint up to two urban supervisors to represent urban interests on the board. This combination of officials representing diverse views has a relatively broad scope of authorities.
Because of their unique characteristics and proven track record, CDs have been entrusted by the state with mandated activities such as implementation of the 310 Law, water reservations, stream access portage routes, county planning board participation, and local Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) consultation. Also, CDs serve as the local point of contact for numerous federal programs. This is all in addition to the long-standing CD roles such as educating landowners about sound conservation practices, tree planting and organizing outdoor classroom educational activities for school children. Please see the “what do CDs do?” link for more details on these responsibilities.
Local funding for the operation and conservation activities of each district comes from 1.5 mills levied on real property within the boundaries of the district; this figure varies around the state from $2,500 to, in a few, over $100,000. In almost all districts, the amount generated locally is inadequate to meet the expectations of the citizens living in the CD. The State of Montana, through the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, provides a grant to allow the district to operate at a minimal level. In all cases, each district must think creatively about how to secure additional funding and seek out state and federal grant opportunities in order to meet the needs of their constituents.
Districts have two main partners, sometimes referred to as the “three legged stool.” The State of Montana participates through the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The federal government participates through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Conservation and Resource Development Division (CARDD) of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has duties specifically established in state statute to: assist CD supervisors in carrying out their authorities and programs, facilitate an interchange of information, activities, and cooperation among districts; coordinate programs among districts through advice and consultation; secure the cooperation and assistance of federal and other state agencies in the work of districts; disseminate information concerning the act ivies and programs of districts; and administer financial assistance programs for districts. This division provides a link to state government for the continued successful operations of conservation districts.
The Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)–formerly the Soil Conservation Service–of the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides technical assistance to the nation’s private land managers. Conservation districts were established as a link between the NRCS and these land managers. Generally located in the same local field offices as NRCS employees, conservation districts set local priorities for federal conservation programs. As a source of technical conservation expertise and financial assistance, the agency’s value to land managers has increased immensely in recent years–especially in light of the general public’s increased awareness of environmental concerns.