Until I became a Washington Service Corps AmeriCorps member at the Thurston Conservation District (TCD), I had never heard of conservation districts and the tremendous impact they have on private land in Washington State and across the United States.
Established during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, Conservation Districts were created through “A Standard State Conservation Districts Law” to assist “the federal government [with] allocat[ing] its resources on their highest priority needs” and “get soil erosion under control.” Though we have come along way from the Dust Bowl, conservation districts continue to provide important technical and financial resources to private landowners.
There are currently 3,000 Conservation Districts across the United States. The way in which these districts receive their funding and authorization differs from state-to-state but they are all represented by the non-profit National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) in Washington D.C. In Washington State, the Washington State Conservation Commission is the state agency that was established to guide the state’s 47 conservation districts while the non-profit Washington Association of Conservation Districts supports the districts “and their constituents by providing leadership, information, representation, products, and services.”
To get a better idea of the role of conservation districts in Western Washington, I turned to the District Administrator, Kathleen Whalen, and Education and Outreach Coordinator, Sarah Wooten, of my office.
Akua: Why are conservation districts (CDs) important?
Kathleen: CDs are non-regulatory entities that help put conservation on-the-ground. Our approach emphasizes voluntary, incentive-based methods… Best of all, our services are free…
Sarah: … CDs provide balance … CD staff has extensive technical expertise to provide helpful and accurate information to landowners [and land managers] looking to manage their property in a way that not only accomplishes [the landowner’s] goals, but also protects and conserves… the resources around them.
A: Why are conservation districts effective in promoting environmental stewardship and conservation?
K: Most conservation districts offer a variety of programs... The Thurston CD, for example, has a technical assistance program; an education program, which includes workshops, outreach events; a shellfish stewardship program and student-based education; and a [h]abitat program, which involves in-stream and terrestrial habitat improvement. All three program areas are designed to promote voluntary stewardship and conservation.
S: Conservation districts provide a bridge between current laws and regulations and the desires of private landowners. CDs work with landowners to teach them about conservation and how to apply environmentally safe practices on their own land. This is done with great success due to the voluntary nature of CDs – the landowners come to us for advice and we’re always here to help!
A: What sorts of resources are available to landowners through conservation districts?
K: Services vary by conservation district office and available funding. The Thurston CD offers… a cost share program, which helps landowners implement Best Management Practices (BMPs) that are designed to improve and protect natural resources. We also have equipment available such as a manure spreader, spin spreader, portable poultry processing equipment and weed wrench. Local residents may check out such equipment at low rental rates to help implement BMPs specific to their site.
S: Other than fostering stewardship in landowners and homeowners of all sorts, CDs offer a service called conservation planning … [A conservation plan] is land management plan for individuals to follow that allows them to operat[e] how they wish on their property without harming their natural resources…Not one conservation district is exactly like another.
Though local planning or development agencies can shape the environment through police power, conservation districts work closely with landowners, through non-regulatory means, to help develop a local and perhaps more sustainable outcome.
What agencies or organizations are working in your community to promote environmental stewardship and conservation on privatized land?
Credits: Image and data linked to sources.