News From the Front, May 1

Final News from the Front

The last one, folks! In last week’s News From the Front, we promised you a roundup of how the funding bills shook out in the last days of the legislature. Well, here it is.

Money

Jeff Tiberi has passed on many pieces of wisdom over the course of this session. The one most pertinent for the last few days of the session is “If the questions is why, the answer is money.” The session ended on Tuesday but not before some confusion and many people asking “Why?”

House Bill 6 (RRGL Grants)

HB 6 The funding bills started moving through the legislature differently than they had in the past. This year, funding that had previously been brought forward as a number of different bills were lumped together into one bill, HB5. Many legislators did not want to vote on one bill when they had previously voted on a number of bills. The result was that HB5 was tabled in committee and different aspects of HB5 were split into a number of bills. The RRGL grants became HB 6.

The RRGL projects had previously been ranked by DNRC into a sequential order. The past few sessions, an interest in projects ranking near the bottom resulted in a majority of these projects being funded. This year we were constantly monitoring where the funding line for these projects was drawn under that budget iteration – it changed with a lot of frequency. Because of the frequent changes and budget projects of the executive and legislative leadership, Jeff and I kept checking in with the legislative staff. It was a point where some staff could predict what we would be asking. The most telling response to where the funding line was currently located was “You know the old days? We are back to the old days.” This means that at last report the funding line was drawn at project 33. Some district projects were funded and many were not.

This means that we have to support one another in undertaking these large projects so that we are prepared for the next session. MACD and sister organization SWCDMI are working to provide more technical assistance to districts so we can all be better prepared for the next session. Please be in touch to let me know how you think we can best do that.

House Bill 7

HB 7 was also an important bill for conservation districts in that it funded two projects for the Deer Lodge Conservation district in addition to providing funding for aquatic invasive species prevention and much needed upgrades to the Montana Salinity Control Association equipment. This was passed and signed by the Governor. Although not all projects were funded, the key funding for Districts did make it through.

House Bill 2 (Agency Funding)

HB 2 is the funding that goes to state agencies. Although, a number of different cuts were placed on the DNRC budget over the course of the session, HB2 emerged with the possibility of more funding for 223 and Administration grants (dependent upon Coal Tax Revenue) and a new home/building for a portion of DNRC including the CARDD Division.

Senate Bill 416

SB416 is known as the infrastructure bill. This bill took many of the pieces that were not funded in other bills, but were in HB5, and funded them through a series of different methods. The key factor with this bill is that it requires 2/3rds of the vote as it would use bonding as the funding source. Jeff Tiberi and I worked to have districts included in a component of SB416 that provided grants through the chamber of commerce. We were unable to get districts included and this would have been difficult because there were match requirements that were not as large of a component of RRGL grants. SB416 failed by one vote in the house. This does not impact districts as much because we were not able to directly apply. It will, however, impact our communities.  HB284 is still on the Governors desk and we are still not sure whether it will be signed.

Surprise

HB334 – This bill is one that has been on our radar but not in The News from the Front because for the majority of the session it was largely directed toward school districts and counties. Very late in the session it was amended to include conservation districts by referencing our statute 76-15. What this means for conservation districts is that when you send out your minutes and notice of meeting, you should also include your county clerk and recorder. Although this should not impact districts too much, it is a good reminder that the more outreach districts can provide, the more people will see the dedication and good work we do for conservation in our communities. That being said, throughout the course of this session, time and again, legislators responded positively to requests on behalf of conservation districts and we should be proud of the high regard the majority of legislators have for districts.

The End and the Future

As we did from time to time when testifying in order to keep things short, I’ll throw in my “Me too” with regard to the eloquence that Jeff Tiberi used in the last edition of News from the Front to wrap things up and thank all those who helped. Now, I will pivot to the future where we only have 18 months until the next session. I encourage all of you to talk with the folks around you about what you would like to achieve next session and bring these ideas to your district meetings and area meetings so we can vote on these resolutions in November and start to get to work for next year.

To help frame that upcoming dialogue, I’ve provided some commentary below about the intersection of science, policy, and local communities.

Science

As MACD has followed numerous bills through different committees and hearings this session, in talk in the halls and in the media, a keyword has emerged: SCIENCE. Statements such as “We need to follow the science” or “This goes against science” have been prevalent throughout the discourse of many topics. Science is important, but so too is our understanding of how science is conducted, where specific scientific studies are important, and an understanding that statements such as these are a disservice to science, scientists, and the work put into the individual studies that make up the body of science.

Much of science, and particularly natural resource sciences, are rooted in space and time that affect the context of scientific findings. For example, if “X” is found to be true in a study looking at a small area such as a park over the course of a year and another scientist tests whether “X” is true at a larger area such as a state over the course of the year, the two findings may or may not be consistent with one another based on the spatial and temporal differences. It would be impossible to study all of the possible scenarios, but as more cases are built where and when “X” is true, it becomes less likely but not impossible that there is a scenario where “X” is not true. With this in mind, you can see how the conglomeration of individual studies pushes the body of science forward, but only incrementally. At the same time, one can understand how many of the nuanced details pertinent to findings are lost through time and assimilation into the larger body of scientific knowledge.

Our elected officials and policy experts also work within a context, the context of the body of law that has been passed before them and held up in our judicial system.  This system has also incrementally built the governmental systems that uphold the laws and provide the services passed through our three branches of government. The branches of government were designed to provide checks and balances among one another and provide a system with which to move forward the goals of the people. Although some may argue about the different benefits and merits of this system, we can agree that policy is not intended to move forward in the same way in which science moves our body of knowledge forward. As a result, it is difficult to argue that policy must do something because it agrees with science. Science is singular in purpose; to understand the biological and ecological impacts or effects of a variable. If policy should only follow the science, there would be no thought to how that policy would impact the social and economic aspects of the region. Policy makers are elected and retained based on how their policy impacts these above all else. There is, however, a need for policy to be constructed in a way that works within our current governmental systems. This does not mean that we should not incorporate the understanding gained from science, but rather that we need to be understanding of the system to which we want this knowledge incorporated.

Once “X” has been found to be true within the context of studies that are relevant to a piece of legislation and that legislation or policy has been accepted by elected officials and built into the body of law in an appropriate way, the science and policy of “X” needs to be implemented. Depending upon how and at what level of government the policy was passed, different amounts of planning, work, and discussion need to be undertaken. This is a tenuous space, one where oftentimes instead of seeing science and policy framing issues in the way dictated by their processes, some see them as going head to head. Instead, we should figure out how to once again contextualize the science and policy onto the landscape.

From an individuals’ perspective, their spatial context is defined largely by where they live, work, and recreate. The temporal aspect of individuals’ lives change frequently, but we can largely agree that it is dictated by their lifespan. Recently, while touring the state for Conservation District Area Meetings, the concept of Local Ecological Knowledge materialized to better discuss that which farmers and ranchers have long discussed: the knowledge gained by spending day in and day out on the landscape. Unlike physics or chemistry, natural resource science is not cut and dry. It is not conducted in as controlled of an environment, so we must take the findings in context, do our best to make accurate assumptions and to apply the science at the scale and context within which the findings were developed. The field of agriculture is fraught with examples of things that work on the landscape, but that cannot be supported in science. We forget the grand impact that human managers, their attention to detail, their intimate knowledge of the land, and their dedication to the health and fitness of their animals, their land, and their economic success contribute to the larger picture.

Everything has a framework or context through which it came. Instead of stating that policy should “follow the science,” we should figure out how to best blend current science with current policy. To implement science and policy successfully at the local, applicable scale, we need to artfully paint these policies onto the landscape. Those intimately attune to the landscape and community needs can provide local ecological knowledge, policymakers can create policy attune to scientific knowledge and understanding of feasibility of implementation, and scientists can work to intentionally add to the scientific body in a way that understands local scalability and policy needs. We all see things from a different perspective, but that does not mean that we cannot all add value to the future picture.

*This conversation grew out of many discussions during the session. It became better formulated through conversations with Jeff Tiberi, Ann McCauley, and Rachel Frost. Local Ecological Knowledge was discussed and brought forward at the Area 1 meeting with great insight from Dean Rogge. We will continue to build upon these ideas and seek your input.

 

Respectfully yours,

Elena