Did You Know? How to build effective conservation partnerships

By Mike Brown, Executive Director of the National Association of State Conservation Agencies and Associate Board Supervisor of the Kent Conservation District in Delaware

Did you know?

  • That conservation districts, working in concert with NRCS, are ineffective as deliverers of soil and water conservation on private lands?
  • That agricultural conservation programs only focus on farm-scale environmental problems instead of solving landscape-scale problems, and funds from these programs are not allocated cost-effectively?
  • That voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs do not clean up dirty water? That this approach is promoted solely by agricultural interests, and throwing more money at this failed methodology will get us nowhere?
  • That the traditional system of conservation delivery is not capable of addressing today’s agri-environmental problems?
  • That agriculture should be more heavily regulated, as our reliance on voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs has not worked?
  • That one of the weaknesses of our current voluntary conservation program is that they (NRCS and conservation districts) don’t have a mechanism to really take into account the business realities of growers?

If you disagree with these statements, you are not alone. I do as well. However, these are just a few examples of attacks on our traditional system of conservation delivery from publications, ad campaigns, and even congressional testimony in recent months. These statements are being made by a variety of groups both inside and outside the Capital Beltway, including but not limited to the Environmental Working Group, What’s Upstream, the Western Environmental Law Center, AGREE, the World Resources Institute, and even our friends at the Nature Conservancy.

Why, you might ask, would these groups launch campaigns designed to degrade the conservation delivery system that has been an unparalleled model of success over the last 75 years? I am certainly in no position to speak on behalf of any of the above-mentioned groups, so I can merely speculate on their motives. I suspect some of these claims are made in an effort to redirect federal conservation dollars to the group(s) making the claims. I also suspect that some of these folks actually believe this rhetoric, and if you look hard enough, you might find places scattered around the country where some of these claims are true.

The fact is, it really doesn’t matter whether these statements are true or not. They are being cast broadly across our society, and in many cases, these are the only reviews of our conservation delivery system to reach the eyes and ears of the media, our populace, and our decision makers at all levels. Let’s face it, perception is reality!

What then, should we do to counter these claims and better demonstrate the effectiveness of our conservation partnership? Several solutions come to mind:

  • Perform a comprehensive assessment of your conservation district. Are you meeting the mandates and expectations of your district as prescribed by state statute? Does your district have a good, functional working relationship with the State Conservation Agency, and does that agency provide constructive feedback on your district operations? Does your district regularly assess the natural resource concerns within your district boundaries and create long-range plans to address those concerns? Has your district secured the funding required to address these resource concerns? Does your district take the leadership role in the local working group process, engaging a wide array of partners and stakeholders, and is that process effective? If the answer to any of these questions is no, your conservation district has more work to do.
  • Perform an honest assessment of your board and your staff. Do all of your board members attend meetings, engage partners and decision makers, and promote the district and its mission whenever possible? Is your staff technically savvy and able to keep up with the required workload? Are annual plans in place that support your strategic plan and mission, and above all else, address the natural resource concerns of the district? Are the goals in your annual plan measurable, and are you honestly evaluating the district’s performance each year? Again, if the answer to any of these questions is no, changes are in order.
  • Talk about your district’s accomplishments. Cultivate relationships with local media sources and work to make your district their recognized source of expertise on conservation. Develop a substantial social media presence. Reach out to your cooperators and every landowner in the district. Provide regular reports to state, county, and locally elected officials, demonstrating the benefits the district provides for their constituents.
  • Get involved regionally and nationally with conservation districts and other conservation partners. Use the good work of others as a benchmark to evaluate your district and your local partners. Emulate the best!

For years, we have said that conservation districts are the best-kept secrets in the world of conservation. This is in large part due to our collective lack of focus on communicating our successes outside of the boardroom. It’s high time to make a change!

We need to be the most effective conservation districts we can be, but we also need to talk about our achievements on a broad scale. One way we can do this is to post our partnership’s success stories on www.whyconservationworks.com. This new website, sponsored by our core conservation partnership, is dedicated to demonstrating the effectiveness of the voluntary incentive-based approach to conservation delivery. It’s just one way to counter the claims outlined at the beginning of this article, and it is an easy way to share your successes.

Simply log on to the website, click on the Submit Your Story button, and enter the story of how your district addressed one or more natural resource concerns and how the effort made a positive difference in the environment.  It’s easy, it’s fast, and it will share your successes with the world!

Mike Brown is the executive director of the National Association of State Conservation Agencies. He can be reached by email at mike-brown@nascanet.org.

Disclaimer: Did You Know? recommendations and observations may not apply to all states. NACD’s DO/MS Committee requests your understanding. We also invite you to find out what your state and local laws and policies say about any particular item.

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