What’s a conservation district?
County conservation districts – ours is the Yamhill County Soil and Water Conservation District – have their origins in the Dust Bowl and Depression. Hugh Hammond Bennett was the force behind the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service, which spawned the districts nationwide. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service website has this historical note:
“In 1933, the Soil Erosion Service, predecessor to the Soil Conservation Service and NRCS, began working with farmers in the Coon Creek watershed of southwestern Wisconsin [Aldo Leopold, mentor of modern ecological restoration was part of this early project] to transform the square, eroding fields into what one sees today—a conservation showplace of contouring, stripcropping, terracing, and wise land use that benefits the soil, air, water, as well as the plant, animal, and human life of the whole watershed.
[blogger’s note: wise land use is not – repeat NOT – anything to do with the “wise use” movement which has hijacked the term and ideals of sensible land stewardship]
The carpeting of the land with soil conservation works nationwide was hastened with the passage of the Soil Conservation Act in April of 1935. Recognition of the first conservation district, bounded by the Brown Creek watershed in North Carolina, on August 4, 1937, established a method for the Service to assist farmers in the conservation districts. Locally elected citizens established priorities and plans for the district’s work.”
Why are they the heroes?
1) There are patches of high quality habitat in reserves on public land, but as the NRCS points out, 70% of the land in the United States is privately owned. This is the matrix through which animals and plants must migrate, disperse and live. Therefore private land is critical to the maintenance of ecosystem services: clean air and water, soils that provide nutrients instead of requiring injections of fertilizer like a heroine addict, and natural pest control from beneficial insects and birds. It isn’t difficult to provide a little space for diversity, and if these places connect, mine with yours, and yours with you neighbor’s, the effective size of the habitat is much larger.
That’s why people who work with landowners are so important. Every farmer, suburban and urban homeowner can afford space to have hedgerows, a tree, or some shrubs in a relatively undisturbed state for insects and animals that need it. The conservation district works with landowners individually to help them accomplish this and finds money to fund it to boot.
2) It’s important to note, especially in these days of ubiquitous, know-nothing, anti-goverment ranting, that there are a lot of government agencies staffed with people whose job is to help people do the right thing. And they do. Many of them go even further and do most of the work for you. Our property was in a group funded by a Landowner Incentive Program grant. The agency staff wrote the grant, got the funding, hired the operators to mow and shear, and provided guidance, plants, and seed afterward. Our job is to maintain it into the future. But it is likely we will have help with that too.
3) Dean, our contact at the conservation district is another reason. He retired recently and his job had to be split between two people because it was hard to find someone with all his skills. He cared personally about each of his landowners and their projects and he knew all our hills and dales because he walked them, mapped them, flagged them for treatments, and took us along, pointing out and naming plants, showing us the slope and direction of treatments and a hundred other things. He was patient and always willing to talk about the project, even though he was extremely busy with projects all over the county much larger than our little patch.
Dean’s prescriptions always came in the form of questions – would we like to do this or that; would it be okay if he brought in a summer youth employment group to weed our native plant plots (holy cow, I was embarrassed I hadn’t weeded it!); which trees did we think would be good wildlife snags (the ones he had already picked out were the best – of course).
Even though we will miss him, we are able to keep working with equally dedicated people we can count on for assistance and advice. And that’s why I love the conservation district.