By NACD President Brent Van Dyke
In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled the U.S. Atlantic island territories as Category 4 storms.
June 25, 2018 – This week, leaders and staff from the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) are in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands to meet with conservation districts and government officials to learn more about their resource concerns as well as how the islands are recovering from the hurricanes.
As a national association, we are tasked with promoting the conservation mission, ensuring funding levels are maintained and our members’ concerns are heard. Providing a strong, unified voice for conservation is a key component to achieving NACD’s mission, but that mission can only be accomplished through strong membership. Our members are united with a common goal of delivering conservation to ensure we conserve resources for the future. As president, I’ve seen firsthand how the work our members do in every state and territory has resulted in a stronger national association, but more importantly it has resulted in making our nation stronger and more resilient. That’s why it is so important to us to reach out, cultivate and maintain relationships with our members, especially during times of need.
NACD’s trip to the Caribbean is providing our leaders with a better understanding of some of the issues and obstacles the territories’ leaders are facing on a day-to-day basis. Although our week has just begin, we’ve already met with leaders from state, local and federal governments and our discussions are provoking thoughtful, long-term solutions to the unique resource concerns and circumstances these folks are facing. Despite the tragedy, they’ve remained committed to sustainability efforts. Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) Program, conservation districts are helping landowners address serious and long-lasting damages to the land and infrastructure. We are learning how the technical assistance grants, made possible through NACD in cooperation with NRCS, are helping districts with funding for additional staff. We are also here to learn more about how conservation districts restructuring from 17 districts down to eight is going, and it’s been insightful to learn what is working and what could be improved.
Conservation district representatives and partners outlined several specific projects these folks are implementing to address conservation efforts specific to the area—including a $2 million project to preserve coral reefs in the southwest district of Puerto Rico. Districts are utilizing bioengineering and specific methods to address erosion, water flow and run-off, and brush management on public and private lands. The island is currently experiencing a drought, which has created further complications for the producers in areas without irrigation. District officials highlighted the ways they are addressing the inefficient use of irrigation canals and seeking to minimize the use of deep water wells by creating a pipeline from reservoirs to various farms. I am so impressed with the projects and conservation practices we’ve learned about today—in fact, many of the conservation practices implemented prior to the hurricanes have largely contributed to their recovery.
Although they still have a long way to go, the work already being done to address the damage is inspiring. Hearing from those who lived through the devastating storms and listening to the ways preventative measures and recovery efforts for future storms can be improved has been extremely helpful. These representatives educated our team on the unique initiatives they have underway and the drive they have to do more.
While this work is important, a recurring theme that emerged throughout the conversations we’ve had is the importance of engaging the next generation. It’s a challenge both we and Puerto Rico both face. Of Puerto Rico’s over 1,300 schools, only 150 have agriculture programs. I had the opportunity to speak with Hugo Varona (pictured) who is an agriculture teacher and FFA advisor at Puerto Rico’s only specialized vocational agriculture school. As a former FFA advisor myself, we talked about how easy it is to get caught up in teaching parliamentary procedure, practicing public speaking skills and preparing for competitions. In order to keep the voluntary, locally-led conservation model alive, we must educate young people on the significance of conservation and inform them on the careers and opportunities within ag and conservation related fields.
I applaud Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for continuing to carry out the conservation mission despite all the hurdles they are currently facing. They aren’t going to quit, they aren’t giving up, they will recover—and conservation districts are at the forefront of those efforts. It’s a privilege to be here and I am excited to see what the rest of this week holds.