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«Promoting the Indian Use of Indian Resources 11/2008 The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and ...»

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Soil and Water



Promoting the Indian Use of Indian Resources


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in

all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin,

age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status,

parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political

beliefs, reprisal, or because all or part of an individual's income is derived

from any public assistance program (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) Persons with disabilities who require alternative means for communication of program information (Braille, large print, audiotape, etc.) should contact USDA's TARGET Center at (202) 720-2600 (voice and TDD).

To file a complaint of discrimination, write to USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20250or call (800) 795-3272 (voice) or (202) 720-6382 (TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

Prepared by the Intertribal Agriculture Council with technical and financial support from the Natural Resource Conservation Service


The Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC), since its inception in 1987 has endeavored to improve management and conservation on Indian land. Land not only serves as the “home” but the natural resources produced by the land are still the greatest generator of economic wealth for Indian people. It is important that we preserve these lands as well as the culture to pass on to future generations.

Improving management and conservation of our “home lands” must include the land owner and land user in the conservation effort. Conservation has a cost attached to it and in this day of marginal agriculture income, the owner/ user must utilize every opportunity available to apply conservation on the land.

We all know the family that has 150 head of cows and the operation has been in the family since the early 1900’s. This life is the only job the father has had while putting six kids through high school. The range is in fair condition but could use some improvements, the bulls are of medium quality and are with the cows year long, and there is no hay base attached to the ranch. The only time you see this fella in town is to pay his leases in the spring and when he is shipping his calves in the fall. He’s not the type of fella you see at the local Extension Office or at any of the management type seminars. He does not know the local NRCS rep nor has he heard of “cost share programs.” The only person this man visits with is his neighbor and that is during the time they are sharing labor or working cattle.

The neighbor is a little more progressive and becomes involved in the local conservation district. He cross fences his place, develops a few water holes for his cattle and even fences off part of the creek to protect his grandkids’ favorite fishing hole. While the neighbors are horseback sorting cattle, the first fella asked the neighbor how he got all that work done all the while knowing they share the struggle of keeping things wired together. The neighbor explains his involvement in the conservation district and the USDA programs he used to get this done. He also volunteers to get the NRCS rep out to talk to him.

The guy we all know met with the NRCS, talked about what he would like to do with his place. This discussion led to some cross fences, creation of a bull pasture and a grazing plan. The fella was able to sort his bulls off and feed them a little better and he was able to leave his cattle on grass a little longer, thus decreasing his hay bill. Within two years his calves were more uniform and weighed 50 pounds more. No, he didn’t take to attending any more management type seminars than he had in the past, but the land was showing increased productivity and he was getting a bigger calf check. This example is conservation that benefits the land, the producer and community.

With this concept in mind, the IAC with the assistance of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), has prepared this booklet to explain a process available to Indian Tribes and Tribal members to increase conservation on Indian lands. This, the third publication of this booklet, includes all that IAC has learned about Soil & Water Conservation Districts as well as the necessary documents developed since the publication of the first booklet.

It is the intent of this booklet to explain the purpose and organization of the NRCS, USDA, and to introduce the local level support structure, which directs NRCS activities.

This booklet introduces some of the responsibilities of conservation districts and the options available to Tribal governments and reservation residents in becoming more involved in the conservation district(s) governing their respective reservation. This booklet also identifies other potential partners who can assist with the natural resource issues and conservation program development on reservations.

This booklet is designed to assist Tribal governing bodies and individual land users in gaining an understanding of how conservation districts direct local programs delivered by the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). It is not the intent of this booklet to serve as a manual, which describes each required step and required forms. Instead, this booklet is meant to provide a general understanding of the procedures involved. Any Tribal government interested in further exploring the options available to them can contact the IAC for an on-site presentation.

As a final note to this section, a thank you to the employees of the NRCS who were kind enough to provide guidance, review and editing of this booklet.

–  –  –


Various laws and regulations have established countybased delivery systems for the major farm and conservation programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

For example, the NRCS also accomplishes its work though a local committee: the Board of Directors of Conservation Districts, which is the topic of this booklet. These districts may be called Soil &Water Conservation Districts (SWCD’s) or Natural Resource Conservation Districts (NRCD’s) or simply Conservation Districts. Regardless of the name, the basic form and function remains the same.

A conservation district is a geographical area established for conservation purposes with a board of directors that serve as a local unit of government, which prioritize and assist in the delivery of services provided by NRCS. It is usually a subdivision of state government made possible under state law in response to a federal mandate. Conservation districts can also be a sub- division of a reservation, made possible by Tribal law.

The Secretary of Agriculture, in Memorandum No. 2006,01/18/80, recognizes the authority of Tribal

Governments to form conservation districts by stating:

“Hereafter, in carrying out conservation programs and practices related to soil and water, Indian organizations operating under Tribal or Federal law may, if otherwise qualified, be,furnished technical and other assistance on the same basis such assistance is furnished to districts organized under state law.” Conservation districts can be described as the local committee that increases public awareness and participation in resource conservation. They represent cooperators as they are land users themselves, speak for the land, document the needs of the people and the land, and develop plans for resource conservation. They bring together entities to work on local common conservation problems. Districts identify barriers preventing land conservation and bring proposed solutions to governing bodies. Conservation Districts are best described as the marriage of education, science and technology in agriculture and natural resources at the local level.

The Navajo Nation Soil & Water Conservation Districts on the Navajo Nation state their purpose is to “Provide technical assistance for the conservation and restoration of soil, water, plant, animal and related resources; to control soil erosion which is caused by wind and water, people and animals;

control of flood damages, beneficial use of all waters, whether they be surface, subsurface and flood waters. Establishment in management of irrigated crop and pastures and haylands, planning and implementation of better grazing management systems, preservation and improvement of wildlife habitat and cultural resources. Planning and implementation of rural and economic development for the general well being of the Navajo People.”



A discussion of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is necessary here because it is the federal agency closely aligned with conservation districts at all levels.

The local conservation district prioritizes programs and services for NRCS at the local level. The state association of conservation districts provides similar guidance at the state NRCS leader level and the national conservation district association provides input at the national level. NRCS played the leadership role in the early establishment of conservation districts as well as providing financial assistance to those districts. The relationship between NRCS as an agency and the local conservation district is defined by a formal written agreement, which is illustrated later in this booklet.

Another important point in the NRCS/District relationship is that NRCS, through an agreement with the National Association of Conservation Districts, will provide a District Conservationist to the local conservation district. In other words, if you form a conservation district, NRCS will put a conservationist at your headquarters to work with you.

The NRCS started in 1929 with an emergency act of Congress in response to the famous Dust Bowl. Initially, ten experiment stations were established to work with Land Grant Universities to study soil erosion and ways to prevent it. However, individual farmers did not receive the benefit of the valuable research, nor did the individual farmers receive assistance in applying the research to their land, thus erosion went uncontrolled.

In 1933, the Soil Erosion Service was established to set up further demonstration projects focusing on watershed protection. Still missing was the technical expertise and financing desperately needed by the depression era farmers.

In 1935, Congress changed the Soil Erosion Service to the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and made it a permanent agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In 1994, Congress authorized the Secretary of Agriculture to create the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) by combining the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) with other USDA conservation programs. The purpose of the agency remains to ensure the care and proper use of natural resources on all non-federal lands. Their vision is to have a productive nation in harmony with a quality environment. NRCS carries this out by assisting operators and land managers with total resource management plans that focus on soil, water, air, plant, animal, and human needs.

The mission of the NRCS is to help people help the land.

NRCS provides technical and financial assistance through many programs designed to assist the land users in preserving and protecting natural resources. NRCS conservation programs include the Conservation Technical Assistance Program, Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Agriculture Management Assistance Program, Conservation Security Program, Emergency Watershed Protection Program, Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Grassland Protection Program, Healthy Forests Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Resource Conservation and Development Program and Soil Survey Program.

Additional information on NRCS Programs can be found at http//www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/Index.html.

Examples of practices they can help with include a wide range of irrigation engineering, land leveling, drainage, and water distribution; tillage techniques including terracing, contouring, strip farming and residue management; alternate cover crops and sod water ways for erosion control and water quality; crop and land use selection to best utilize existing soil types; pasture and range development; livestock and range management plans; and watershed protection. Many of these practices enhance wildlife and fisheries and may be used to enhance sensitive plants.

To provide an idea of the technical assistance available, some of the occupations within the NRCS include: soil scientists, agronomists, soil conservationists, range conservationists, irrigation engineers, foresters, and hydrologists. This list does not include every profession within the NRCS, but shows the type of expertise available to the individual producer and the conservation district.




The Soil Erosion Service, who became the NRCS, was successful in the study of erosion and successful in the design of conservation practices to prevent the rampant soil erosion of the dust bowl days. However, the individual farmers were not applying the practices developed at experiment stations and land grant universities. Farmers felt that these newly designed conservation practices were being forced upon them and that they should have a say in how the practices were applied.

Farmers, employees of the agency and members of Congress felt that the government had a responsibility to assist land users with both financial and technical assistance in the application of conservation practices on individually owned property. Hugh Bennett, the ‘Father of Conservation” wrote in a 1934 Natural Resources Board Report: “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.

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