The old saying goes: Necessity is the mother of invention. We all know how it works- when something critically needs our attention, we develop creative solutions that perhaps wouldn’t be considered before. Coincidentally, it also describes well the history and function of Conservation Districts.
We have to go back to the 1930s to begin the story. During this period, the Dust Bowl was ravaging the country, sending millions of tons topsoil from recently plowed grasslands rolling across the country in what became known as “Black Blizzards”. The millions of acres of land that were so productive during moisture rich years when crop prices where high essentially took to the wind when drought conditions persisted, crops failed, and none of the deep rooted native species remained to hold the soil in place. The conditions resulted in both an economic and ecological disaster of massive proportions.
Here is where we see the mother of invention enter the picture. The significant consequences of the Dust Bowl resulted in a national framework to ensure that such conditions would not be seen again, and a local effort was recognized as part of the solution.
According to the National Association of Conservation Districts, “Congress unanimously passed legislation declaring soil and water conservation a national policy and priority. Because nearly three-fourths of the continental United States is privately owned, Congress realized that only active, voluntary support from landowners would guarantee the success of conservation work on private land. In 1937, President Roosevelt wrote the governors of all the states recommending legislation that would allow local landowners to form soil conservation districts.”
These Conservation Districts were the local answer for the development and demonstration agricultural practices that conserved soil and water so future soil loss would be avoided. Practices that were embraced by these Conservation Districts were more widely accepted because of the local nature of the effort. People were learning together with their neighbors to develop local solutions that work, rather than being directed from above.
Today, the 3,000 national Conservation Districts serve in the same local capacity, but they encompass a broader scope of work. Some areas still remain focused on soil and water conservation efforts, while others have realized that their local needs also include forestry, wetlands, wildlife habitat, and even storm water management for urban areas. In Montana, 58 local CDs are also tasked with permitting under the Natural Streambed and Land Preservation Act.
But, what about our region of southwest Montana? The area is generally covered by 6 CDs: Beaverhead in Dillon; Ruby Valley in Sheridan; Mile High in Butte; Jefferson Valley in Whitehall; Madison in Ennis; and Broadwater in Townsend. Each board includes 7 supervisors who consider conservation needs in the area and develop local solutions for these needs. Many boards work closely with other entities, including NRCS, Extension, USFS, and BLM.
While necessity played a hand in the long-ago invention of Conservation Districts, the need for these efforts remains strong today. Take a moment to get to know your own local conservation district and how they are meeting the needs of the local landowners for conservation of soil, water, and other related resources.
Madison Watershed Coordinator, Madison CD