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 of 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.
Local funding for the operation and conservation activities of each district comes from 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.
For more information on district funding, please see the electronic version of our legislative brochure: 2021 Legislature – Conservation District One Pager
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 activities 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.
Roles of Conservation Districts
310 Law | Water Quality | Watershed Planning | Riparian Management | Federal Conservation Programs | Conservation Education | Urban Conservation | Saline Seep | Rangeland Resources | Forest Practices | Water Reservations | Conservation Equipment
The Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act
Conservation districts administer this act, also known as “The 310 Law,” for the state of Montana. Any private individual or corporation proposing to undertake a project or construction activity in a perennial stream must first apply for a permit from the local conservation district. In the permitting process, conservation district supervisors and Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks personnel inspect the site of the project with the applicant to ensure it is completed in a fashion that maintains the natural integrity of the stream system. For more information about stream permitting in Montana, see Montana’s Guide to Stream Permitting.
Conservation districts are the local contact for the control of nonpoint source (NPS) pollution. Districts conduct projects which demonstrate NPS pollution control practices, preferring voluntary, educational, and incentive-based approaches over regulatory approaches. Additionally, district boards work with state and federal regulatory agencies (for the most part, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to identify problem areas and prioritize treatment. Recently, the manner in which these problems are addressed has become the development of Total Maximum Daily Loads for impaired streams in Montana. Districts are represented by two Supervisors on the statewide TMDL advisory board.
Watershed Planning, Local Watershed Councils, and Coordinated Resource Management Efforts
They all mean the same thing–local folks getting together in a collaborative, consensus-based process to tackle local and regional natural resource management issues on a river basin or watershed scale. Conservation districts often draw people and resources together to catalyze or assist in the development of these efforts. See the Montana Watershed Coordination Council site for more information about watershed groups and activities in your area and across Montana.
Riparian and wetland areas are vitally important parts of the landscape. Good management of these areas is critical to a healthy environment. Conservation districts sponsor many stream restoration projects, conduct landowner workshops, produce and distribute informational and educational materials, and hold demonstrations and tours of innovative riparian management techniques and projects.
Federal Conservation Programs
Conservation districts work very closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) to provide local direction for the administration of federal conservation programs. These programs, found in the conservation provisions of the U.S. Farm Bill, include the Conservation Reserve Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Districts work with schools to develop conservation education curricula and outdoor classrooms by coordinating technical and financial assistance and by providing teaching aids. Another important educational activity is the sponsorship of conservation field days. Notable statewide annual camps include the Montana Natural Resources Youth Camp and the Montana Youth Range Camp, along with Montana Range Days. The Montana Envirothon is an annual natural resource competition for teams of high school students. The winning team goes on to the North American Envirothon.
Districts pool technical expertise from a variety of agencies and sources to provide services like soil surveys, water inventories, and waste disposal information for planning commissioners, municipal officials, builders, and others. With the rapid increase in subdivided acreages, and the resource issues associated with these small tracts, districts have recently taken on a new role; many districts now host workshops and produce educational materials for new landowners, many of whom have no prior experience with basic principles of land stewardship. In addition, various conservation districts operate recycling programs, like waste oil collection and annual Christmas tree recycling and mulching.
Saline Seep Reclamation
Membership from conservation district supervisors in 33 counties make up the Montana Salinity Control Association. This internationally recognized organization headquartered in Conrad, Montana provides expert technical assistance in the reclamation and control of saline seeps in agricultural areas. What is a saline seep? You may have seen white, powdery-looking spots in the low areas of fields. These spots are seeps, and they have adverse effects on water quality, wildlife, and other resources, not to mention agricultural production.
Approximately two-thirds of Montana’s land is utilized as rangeland. Many conservation districts appoint a county range leader, and work to assist ranchers, sportsmen, recreationists, and other users of rangeland to become more aware of each other’s needs. Emphasis is placed on initiating a program which will provide voluntary incentives for rangeland improvement and increase public awareness of this major land use and its importance to wildlife, open space, and the Montana economy. A statewide range committee also meets on a regular basis.
Conservation districts in the western part of the state participate in cooperative Best Management Practices education programs and promote sustainable forest management as a means of maintaining stable rural economies.
Conservation districts in Montana are able to reserve water for future beneficial use. Currently, thirty-one conservation districts hold water reservations throughout the Yellowstone, Little Missouri, and Missouri River basins. Each of these districts administers its reservation for use by individuals within the district. Applications for reserved water use can be obtained from the applicable conservation district.
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Conservation districts demonstrate and rent out a wide array of equipment to land users, including tree planters, fabric layers, weed sprayers, weed badgers, conservation tillage drills, grass seeders, and tree chippers, all with the goal of promoting conservation practices. Contact your local district for details.
And That’s Not All
In addition, districts carry out projects involving forest fire rehabilitation, conservation tree plantings, streambank stabilization, agricultural energy conservation, noxious weed control, and irrigation water management. As might be expected with 58 conservation districts, the list goes on.