Did You Know? How to be a high-achieving district

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By Mike Brown

Our heritage began over 75 years ago, and the accomplishments achieved by conservation districts have been nothing short of remarkable. We have transformed the American landscape from barren wastelands of the Dust Bowl era to productive working lands that support healthy wildlife populations, protect water quality, and invest in the future by promoting soil health. However,

Did you know…

Even with state and federal assistance and guidance, we are no longer the sole source of conservation delivery? Countless enterprises – from non-profit and non-governmental organizations to corporate entities – are becoming significant players in the conservation delivery market. They offer a range of services, from conservation planning to installing conservation practices on private lands. (Sound familiar?) Many of these organizations are extremely well-funded, have the backing of wealthy foundations, and a history of securing annual grant funding at levels that conservation districts simply cannot fathom. These groups are therefore well-positioned to fare favorably compared to conservation districts in competitive funding scenarios.

At the same time, there are a number of groups that are attempting to rewrite history by claiming that the voluntary, incentive-based approach to conservation delivery has been ineffective. Just this year, I have seen two in-depth reports that detail how NRCS and conservation districts have failed to protect our natural resources and why the U.S. should rely more heavily on regulation to solve environmental problems. These are impressive looking, well-written reports that came with huge price tags. These publications will influence many people who lack real-world experience in conservation delivery.

Why, all of the sudden, are we receiving so much attention from perceived competitors and, even worse, detractors? The first part of the answer to that question is an easy one. Today there is enough money available for conservation delivery to attract a great deal of attention. For example, the Congressional Budget Office predicted over $57 billion in Title II spending between 2014 and 2023. That’s real money! But, after 75 years of hard work, why are we suddenly seeing a movement to discredit the obvious successes of the voluntary, incentive-based approach to conservation delivery? I can only guess it is an issue of control. Those of us who own and work on farms understand the folly of this approach, but it is a movement that we can hardly afford to ignore.

Now that we know…

We’re not the only game in town for conservation delivery and there’s an ongoing effort to replace our beloved voluntary conservation delivery model with a stronger regulatory approach, what should we do about it? Consider these points to determine if your conservation district is headed in the right direction:

Master Your Trade

By statute, conservation district boards are the voice of all of the landowners and the cooperators in the district. This puts district officials in an enviable position of tremendous responsibility. Locally-led conservation implies local leadership, and there are a few things every conservation district board should do to provide that leadership.

  1. Train your district officials. Insist that every member of the board understands his or her statutory and fiduciary responsibilities, the district’s responsibilities, and the job at hand. Whether these district officials are elected or appointed, they cannot be effective if they fail to understand their job.  Get more information on district official training here on NASCA’s website.
  2. Conduct periodic, comprehensive assessments of the natural resource needs and concerns in your district. This can be a huge undertaking, but it is absolutely essential, and in many states it is mandated by statute. Utilize the expertise on your district staff, your NRCS district conservationist, and experts from other conservation partners to perform these resource assessments.
  3. Annually inventory financial and technical resources available to the district to meet the natural resource needs and goals of the district. Clearly document the gaps between the resources at hand and those needed to adequately address the natural resource needs of the district. This documentation will be of tremendous benefit in reaching out to decision makers when seeking funding for your district.
  4. Assess the human resources available to the district. Do you have enough staff with adequate expertise to serve the needs of your cooperators? If not, is this staff expertise available to you through your partners? If you have answered “no” to these two questions, you have some work to do in assembling the expertise to get the job done.
  5. Assess your partners. Have you developed the partnerships necessary to meet the natural resource needs of the district? Are there groups working in conservation delivery inside the boundaries of your district but independently from your conservation district? If so, work to establish local partnerships with these groups. Odds are this will better serve the district and the group with which you partner.
  6. Assess the board. This may be the most difficult step of all. In my travels, I have met countless conservation district officials who are splendid individuals, but simply are not good district officials. At a minimum, every district official should fully understand his or her role and be fully engaged in the five previously mentioned steps. Anything less is unacceptable. When seeking recruits to fill seats on the board, take a hard look at the organizations discussed earlier that are delivering conservation in your district. Consider recruiting their members that qualify to hold seats on your board, as they will likely bring energy and additional resources to the table in the form of new partnerships. If these individuals don’t meet the statutory requirements to hold a seat on your board, consider them for associate board member positions.

Think Big

The world doesn’t stop at the boundaries of your conservation district. Work in concert with your neighboring districts and other conservation organizations to take on initiatives at the watershed level. This will require a much greater coordination of effort, but it will address natural resource issues at broader scales and open the door to new and valuable partnerships. It will also help nullify claims that voluntary, incentive-based conservation delivery doesn’t work.

Get Engaged

Just as I have suggested reaching out to other organizations to get them involved with your conservation district, learn more about your partners’ activities; after all, partnership is a two-way street. Also, get engaged with your state association, and get your staff engaged as well. If your state has a conservation district employees association, urge your staff to get involved. These groups are not unions – they’ve been created to enhance professional development. Neither district officials nor district staff members reach their potential by operating in a vacuum.

Finally, get engaged with your national organization. When you pay your annual dues, let NACD leadership know what you expect as a return on your investment. If you’re not sure what to expect, ask them what they have to offer. Never pass up the opportunity to be involved at the national level or to have an impact on NACD operations. NACD’s activities in Washington, D.C., have a significant impact on your conservation district. When you think about it, getting involved nationally is just one more critical component of locally-led conservation!

Mike-BrownMike Brown is the executive director for the National Association of State Conservation Agencies. To contact Mike, email him at mike-brown@nascanet.org. To read archived editions of Did You Know?, head over to NACD’s eResource page.

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