The State of Conservation, by Joyce Swartzendruber

Retiring NRCS State Conservationist reflects on conservation across the state.


I don’t know why all these great ideas come to me so late.  So late at night.  So late in the day.  So late in my career.  It would have been great to give you a “state of conservation” report every year in this newsletter, but perhaps it’s something you can have my successor do.  I have a new acronym at the office these days, NMP.  That’s for “not my problem”.  And although that doesn’t sound very nice, I should probably revise that to NMPBISC: “not my problem, but I still care”.  Just ask my staff.  I dole out new assignments and great ideas for ‘them’ to work on every day.  They cringe.

And of course, I do care.  I care about conservation.  I care about Montana.  And I care about all of you who are out there still making it all work.

So, the State of Conservation could be classified by those three things – conservation, Montana, and the people.  I’ll take them in that order.

#1.  Conservation

Conservation on the whole is well-supported and our focus on soil health in the past few years has really elevated the discussions around the technology table.  We can tie everything to the soil.  Our SWAPA + HE resources can all come back to the S.  Soil, water, air, plants, animals, humans, and energy.

Improving soil structure by improving the habitat for soil microbes contributes to improvement in all of the above.  Keeping the ground covered, keeping a wide diversity of plant roots and something green growing to feed the underground herd, eliminating tillage, and adding some livestock action to the surface are the keys to improved soil health.  The water benefits from deep percolation into the root zone and slower runoff carrying less sediment and pollutants.  The air benefits because there isn’t a likelihood of wind erosion, and all those green plants are constantly using C02 and providing oxygen.  The plants benefit by easier access to nutrients, deeper root penetration, and drought resiliency.  The  livestock benefits because their pastures and rangelands are lusher and resistant to weed infestations.  Even wildlife benefit from the increased food web that starts with the microbial population.  Energy inputs are reduced because we aren’t relying on so many equipment trips across the field, and the soil nutrient availability is naturally improved.

Humans benefit from all of the above.  Economically and Environmentally.

#2.  Montana.

We are dealing with many western and Montana-specific issues.  We have Greater sage grouse which, if determined to be Threatened or Endangered, could seriously affect the way we do conservation business in the west.  This message is strongly reinforced via the Governor’s sage grouse plan, and together we will continue assisting ranchers with the best conservation for sage grouse habitat and livestock.  We just know we can’t let up, even if the decision is to “not list” next September.

It’s similar to the success we had with the Fluvial Arctic grayling.  This fish population is increasing in the Big Hole River thanks to commitments from four agencies and nearly three dozen land operators.  The technical and financial assistance in the habitat area has been strong.  The decision by USFWS to not list the fish was well-received by most, but is challenged by others.  The continued commitment of our conservation partnership, local, state, and federal, will be necessary to ensure both the success of the grayling conservation efforts and continued grazing and irrigation operations in the watershed.

We have a forestry issue on private land that is starting to be addressed, but is nowhere near finished.  Unfortunately, our MOU with forest partners MACD, NRCS, DNRC-Forestry, USFS, and MSU Extension Forestry, has faltered of late due to retirements of key personnel.  This will take some leadership to revive, and as NRCS fills their vacant state forester position and reaches out to these partners perhaps we can get it going again.  In the meantime, we do have a federal NRCS/USFS project going on in the Tenmile watershed above Helena that is addressing beetle-killed trees in an important effort to protect the watershed in event of wildfire.  Coordination with the fire-rehabilitation agencies is always important, and we can’t wait until fire season to begin the process.  Annual spring planning meetings are a great idea and hopefully will continue in the future.

I have to mention efforts across the state in mob-grazing, animal feeding operations, water quality initiatives, invasive species control, pollinator habitat, salinity control, energy audits, spill protection prevention and control, snow survey, soil survey, plant materials, ecological site descriptions, sediment studies….  Which brings me to my final point.

3.  The people who make this all happen.

MACD hosted a wonderful break-out session on local work groups, but I’m sure not everybody was able to attend.  The point of the session was to build on some of the things Ray Ledgerwood taught us about the power of conservation districts several years ago at the fall area meetings.  Districts have the power to guide and direct the conservation work in their counties.  It is a bigger conversation than where’s the money.  It is about what you can inspire people to do and how you can be the motivation for a movement to improve the resources that will benefit the producer as well as the environment.  If you aren’t guiding and directing, you are reacting, and that isn’t what this partnership is about.  Set the priorities.  Talk to the producers.  Inspire your staffs.  If you build it they will come.  Our three-legged stool of CD, DNRC, and NRCS has to be intact to work.  If one of us isn’t on board, we are failing our customers.  Remember if you aren’t at the table, you are on the menu, and in these tight budget and politically scrutinizing times, we can’t afford to let down our guard.

Thanks for your commitment to conservation.
Joyce Swartzendruber, retired NRCS State Conservationist 1/2/2015