What is a conservation district?

It just occurred to me that in my enthusiasm to talk about watersheds, I skipped right over the introductions. So pardon me while I take a step back and do that.

We are Skagit Conservation District. Nice to meet you!

For those who aren't familiar with Conservation Districts (I hadn't heard about them until I took one of their classes back in 2011), I thought I should explain who we are. Since I've been working here I've met quite a few people who've mistaken us for someone else, so let's start by clarifying who we are not.

We are not "Skagit County government" and we are not USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). However, we work in coordination with them to assure strategic, knowledgeable, and cost effective service to our shared customers.

Conservation districts are classified as a "special district" because it has limited purposes and is not a local unit of general government, as is the county or city.

CDs are non-regulatory entities that can not enforce compliance or impose penalties, but instead offer voluntary programs that allow collaborative assistance for people to help them responsibly and efficiently manage their land. Since each district has unique resources and needs which can change over time, it is helpful to have a degree of local autonomy. Conservation Districts boards are made of five local farmers and/or land owners along with other concerned citizens, balancing the needs of both productive land use and conservation of resources.

The mission of the Conservation District is to provide voluntary, incentive based options that support working landscapes while protecting and enhancing our natural resource.

Conservation districts may go by different names depending on the areas land and resource focus. They may be called "soil and water conservation districts”, “resource conservation districts”, “natural resource districts”, and “land conservation committees”. Whatever the name, all CDs share a single mission: to coordinate assistance from all available sources to apply locally-driven solutions to natural resource concerns.

You may be asking some version of "Why?" or "How did it come about?"

Wagons and fences covered in soil blown in during the Dust bowl

Well, it all started in the 1930s...

Picture it: the Great Depression, the ecologic and agricultural disaster called the Dust Bowl, and thousands of “dust refugees” fleeing the black fog to seek better lives.

100 million acres had lost its topsoil. Nearly half had been destroyed and could never be farmed again. (History of SC Conservation Districts)

Image of a newspaper article talking about the "Huge Dust Cloud" and "Roosevelt prepares for drought relief"

It became clear that the farming practices of the time had exacerbated the problem and that there was a need to educate people about more sustainable farming practices.

At that time, a soil scientist named Hugh Hammond Bennett was called by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House to see what could be done. Bennett's observations and studies during his career as a soil scientist in the U. S. Department of Agriculture had convinced him that soil erosion was a menace to long-term productivity of the land. (NRCS- history of CD)

Bennett and Leopold visiting the Coon Valley Watershed conservation project.

Beginning in 1933, as head of the Soil Erosion Service (now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Bennett used some of the Public Works Program money he had received to renovate selected watersheds in order to demonstrate soil and water conservation methods.

By 1935 there were 39 erosion-control projects in operation.

In Washington state, erosion control projects were started on the South Palouse River and the Pullman, WA Soil Erosion Experiment Station. (In 1936, other projects were started in Dayton and Ellensburg.) These projects were very successful, but it would not be enough.

Meanwhile, M. L. (Milburn Lincoln) Wilson, assistant secretary of the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and one of America's most innovative agricultural policy-makers, had been thinking about ways to spread soil conservation beyond the scattered demonstration projects, and to make it a force for agricultural reform.

Wilson realized that belief in soil conservation was insufficient to spread adoption of conservation measures outside the projects. They needed to get farmers more involved. Wilson also recognized that the acceptance of conservation in the demonstration projects rested partly on the fact that equipment, labor, and the assistance of trained soil conservationists were available to farmers. This kind of assistance was not available outside the demonstration projects. (NRCS History Articles)

In a 1934 Natural Resources Board Report, Bennett wrote: “States should be encouraged to pass legislation authorizing aid in cooperation with the federal government in erosion control.” The report further states, “The organization of conservation districts or similar legal subdivisions of states should have authority to carry out erosion control measures.” These statements became the foundation of conservation districts. (Soil and Water Districts)

As early as 1935, USDA managers began to search for ways to extend conservation assistance to more farmers, believing the solution was to establish democratically organized soil conservation districts to lead the conservation effort at the local level. To that end, the USDA drafted the Standard State Soil Conservation District Law.

The Standard District Act was published on May 13, 1936. In 1937 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent a letter encouraging participation to the governors of all states. The Act set out a format for conservation district designs that states were encouraged to adopt. It stated that an elected group from the local farm/ranch community could organize soil conservation districts as legal government subdivisions.