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On May 13, 1936, Standard District Act was published and set out a format for conservation district design that states were encouraged to adopt. The Act stated that an elected group from the local farm/ranch community could organize soil conservation districts as legal government subdivisions.
The Act further stated that these districts were to carry out research on erosion control; have demonstration projects;
direct prevention control measures; give land occupants various forms of assistance; make loans of equipment and materials; build and maintain structures; accept contributions of money materials and services and propose land use regulations. You will find these responsibilities remain today as the main purpose and focus of the local districts.
Arkansas was the first state to enact the Standard District Act in May of 1937. Conservation district legislation was passed in all states by June of 1945. Nearly 3,000 districts are now in operation nationwide and in the US Territories.
Most commonly these newly formed conservation districts established district boundaries which followed the established county boundaries.
THE IMPACT ON INDIAN LANDS
“Did the formation of conservation districts which included Indian land bring benefits to these lands?” The answer to this question can be partially answered by looking at national policy and inquiry at the local level. A policy agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Interior, “Reorganization Plan No.
IV of 1940” transferred certain conservation functions to USDI from USDA. This transfer of function was interpreted to prohibit NRCS from assisting Indian landowners or users whose land was held in trust by USDI (BIA).
This agreement was in place until July, 1977, at which time the following policy replaced it: “On the request of an Indian landowner or user to a conservation district, either individual, group or tribe (unit of government), and whose land is included within the boundaries of a conservation district, SCS (now NRCS) may provide assistance for planning and implementing measures of a soil and water conservation program in the same manner, with the same requirements, that assistance is provided to any other land user.” Inquiry at the local level must include the BIA involvement in Indian land management. According to BIA Manual 55, November 17,1970, section 1.5C (4) Conservation Districts (a) General. It is the policy of the Bureau to cooperate as closely with Soil Conservation Districts as legal authority, available resources, and the need for soil conservation on Indian lands will permit. All Superintendents and Indian organizations are urged to cooperate to the fullest extent with Soil Conservation Districts in carrying out a complete conservation program on Indian lands within organized Soil Conservation Districts. The Bureau helps foster the establishment of Soil Conservation Districts. It recommends the inclusion of Indian lands in the formation of new districts and encourages the enlargement of established districts to include Indian lands. Special reports are required on this relationship. Section (b)describes the types of agreements between the BIA and soil conservation districts, which allow for the granting and/or loaning of BIA equipment to the local district.
In December 2006, BIA, NRCS, and the Farm Service Agency entered into a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) designed to clarify agency roles in coordinating, planning and implementing conservation program on Indian lands. A copy of he MOU can be viewed in Appendix E.
IMPORTANCE OF THE CONSERVATION DISTRICT
FOR INDIVIDUAL SERVICESAt your request to either the conservation district or directly to NRCS, NRCS personnel will come to your reservation, farm or ranch to assist you in specific activities which will protect and improve the long-term health and productivity of your land. However, the conservation districts and their boards establish the local priorities, which result in directing NRCS resources to specific purposes. So, while NRCS will provide limited service to individuals not within the boundaries of an existing conservation district or not a cooperator with the conservation district, this service will be generally limited to servicing cost-share referrals and assisting with eligibility determinations for USDA programs.
The level of assistance from NRCS for things other than cost-share referrals and program eligibility determinations is set by the conservation district board, and they prioritize each and every conservation activity in their long-range plan and their annual plan of work. A conservation district can and does accelerate the conservation benefit to individual producers.
BOARD OF DIRECTORSThe conservation district board, working with local farmers, ranchers, and other land managers, balance the national conservation programs with the locally determined conservation needs. They exercise the authority granted in authorizing charters, provide local guidance to the NRCS in the setting of local priorities, and offer long term stability to the use and management of the soil and water resources within the conservation district. It cannot be over stated that conservation districts increase public awareness and participation in conservation programs, provide a physical presence for conservation and bring together entities to work on common conservation problems. One established Indian Conservation District stated they have the Forestry, Minerals, Planning & Economic Development, and Wildlife departments within the Tribe as well as USDA, EPA, Indian Health service, BIA, and the Extension Service working with their district on the conservation needs of their Reservation.
The soil and water conservation needs, in Central Florida on the Brighton Seminole Reservation where high watertables and flooding of crop and pasture lands is a nuisance, are very different from the needs of the Central Arizona Gila River Reservation, where the local residents are actively attempting to get water onto their lands and where high water-tables may be considered a blessing. The local district board, working with local farmers, ranchers, and other land managers, identify the local needs and develop programs that balance the national programs with the locally determined needs to address the different conservation situations across the country. The locally elected district boards meet regularly, (once or twice per month) to develop and carry out the annual and long-range plans for conservation in their districts.
These conservation district priorities, both annual and long-term, help NRCS provide the kind of assistance needed to solve the local problems identified by local people. The districts identify the need for resource surveys such as soil or range surveys and coordinate with NRCS in getting the money and people needed to conduct these surveys. Perhaps a more understandable example would be to describe the district board-NRCS relationship as follows: The district board recognizes the need for conservation planning on all lands within the district, so they set a goal of having a conservation plan for every farm or ranch within the district within a period of five years. The local NRCS person looks at this goal and explains to the district board it is only possible to complete ten farm or ranch conservation plans per year with the present staff, thus it will take ten years to complete this goal. The district board can then either modify the goal to fit the actual rate of accomplishment by present staff, or request more NRCS personnel, or hire more district staff themselves.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEENNRCS AND CD’S The level of NRCS assistance provided to a conservation district is described in a formal agreement, such as a Cooperative Working Agreement, developed jointly by the Conservation Board and the local NRCS, with approval at the state level (see appendix B). Conservation district boards and personnel do not supervise or direct NRCS on day-today activities, nor do Conservation districts prioritize NRCS budgets. Conversely, the NRCS does not supervise, direct or prioritize district activities or budgets. However, the district does prioritize the local conservation issues that will be addressed by the programs NRCS administers.
ELECTIONSGenerally, once a district is formed, the landowners and land users elect five to seven people as the board of supervisors, directors, or commissioners. They are usually on the ballot as non-partisans during general elections.
The election process varies throughout the nation. In some other states, board members are appointed, and in some states, county extension agents serve as ex-officio members of conservation district boards. In the case of a district formed under Tribal Law, the Tribe determines the number of board members and determines the process to become a board member. District boards solicit input from a variety of sources to help develop and prioritize their long-range plan for conservation and development of the natural resources within the boundary of their district.
OTHER SOURCES OF ASSISTANCEBesides the technical assistance received from NRCS, districts may also receive technical help from private organizations, state agencies, and other federal agencies such as Farm Service Agency, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Extension Service. In most states, state conservation agencies have been established by state law to assist conservation districts with their program needs. In some states they are known as boards or commissions, but their responsibilities are generally the same. Some of their
1. Organizing new districts, consolidating districts, or making boundary changes.
2. Distributing any state-appropriated funds to districts.
Issuing rules establishing guidelines and suitable controls for district funds and property, and to advise districts concerning their conformance with applicable laws and regulations.
3. Administer election and appointment procedures for district board member positions.
4. Assist districts in obtaining legal services from state and local legal officers.
5. Assist with agreements between districts and private and public organizations. Seek agreements with government agencies and assist with the development of Memorandums of Agreement.
6. Assist districts with program development, reviewing district programs and coordination of multi-district activities.
7. Facilitating the interchange of information between districts and provide information to board members, disseminating information throughout the state concerning conservation district activities, in particular to the Governor, the legislative agencies, the executive agencies, subdivisions of the state, federal agencies, and the general public.
FINANCIAL SUPPORT FOR CD’SSome financial assistance for conservation district operation may come from the state and/or county for those districts formed under state law. This financial assistance varies from a few hundred to several thousand dollars yearly.
Some districts have local taxing authority, while others have to raise their own funding to meet financial needs. An example of fund raising is the selling of trees for shelterbelts and riparian restoration.
The respective Tribe usually funds those districts formed under Tribal charter. Some of the Tribal conservation districts are receiving grant funding for facilitating community development workshops. Others have developed contracts with USDA agencies to carry out community education workshops for programs and services. Another opportunity for funding of your district is the utilization of a portion of the administrative fees charged for the preparation of leases and range permits on your respective reservation, Tribal Districts trying to secure grant funding from large foundations may find it beneficial to form a 501-(c) 3 organization. There are some benefits and drawbacks to this type of charter. Benefits of 501 (c) 3 include being tax exempt and any organization making contributions receive a tax deduction for the amount of the contribution. A benefit of forming under Tribal law is the sovereign unity of the Tribe insures that you will not be held liable or sued by an individual. Under the 501-(c) 3 charter you would lose this sovereign immunity status. Districts formed as a subdivision of the state have tax exempt status under IRS Code 170 and can receive tax deductible contributions.
Any funding received by a conservation district comes through a local mill levy, support from the respective state, Tribal contributions, or through self generated income through grants and contracts. The conservation district board does not receive operation funding nor do they distribute cost-share funding from NRCS. The NRCS budget for operation and cost-share is distinctly separate from the budget of the conservation district.
LANDOWNER/USER ROLESSince virtually all land treated with conservation measures is privately owned or controlled, (no federal or state) it is necessary that land users themselves carry out the work and are actively involved in the planning. Professional conservationists can provide recommendations for correction of the resource problems, but the professionals do not do the work themselves. The conservation district serves as a coordinator between the professional and the land user.
The district board works with the land user to help them recognize the resource problem, to want to do something about it, and to individually complete or implement the professional recommendations.