WA Conservation Districts: An Introduction

by: Posted on: February 03, 2012

By Craig Nelson, Okanogan Conservation District Manager

Editor’s Note: Those interested in the power structures concerning Washington’s natural resources should be acquainted with Washington’s Conservation Districts, the Washington Conservation Commission, and the non-regulatory tactics they practice. Craig Nelson, the Okanogan Conservation District’s Manager, gives us this valuable introduction.



Conservation Districts: Conserving Natural Resources One Cooperator at a Time

One of the best-kept secrets in Washington State is its 47 conservation districts.  As the Dust Bowl raged across the heartland of the United States in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was urged by the Chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service, Hugh Hammond Bennett, to create a system of local contacts and knowledge base that the federal government could lean on for guidance and direction. Local conservation districts could help the federal government allocate its resources on their highest priority needs.  The President agreed with Mr. Bennett, and as such sent a letter to each state governor urging them to create conservation districts in their states using, “A Standard State Conservation Districts Law” written by Bennett. Bennett later said, “I consider the soil conservation districts movement one of the most important developments in the whole history of agriculture. It has proved even more effective, I am convinced, than we had dared to expect.”

In Washington, conservation districts are subdivisions of state government that were authorized by the Washington State Legislature under the Soil and Water Conservation Act of 1939, which is codified as RCW 89.08.  The act’s preamble starts by stating, “… the lands of the state of Washington are among the basic assets of the state and that the preservation of these lands is necessary to protect and promote the health, safety, and general welfare of its people…” The act authorized the creation of the Washington State Conservation Commission and authorized local communities to petition to the form their own.  Communities around Washington State formed Conservation Districts throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and they now cover almost all lands in Washington.  As a general rule, as districts formed, rural lands were included.  Some cities were included, as the cities recognized the benefits of district services to their landowners.

Conservation districts in Washington are led by five-member boards.  Three individuals who live and typically farm in the District are elected by local voters, the two remaining positions are appointed by the WA State Conservation Commission.  The appointed supervisors must live in the district and again are typically farmers or work in natural resource related industries.

Together, the five board members work with other local leaders, industries (dairy, wheat, forestry, orchard, etc), and community groups to identify the greatest natural resource concerns in their district.  Districts then collaborate with appropriate individuals, groups, state and federal agencies, and tribes to coordinate efforts to resolve the greatest threats to maintaining viable and diverse natural resources.

The Washington State Conservation Commission is a small state agency which is led by a ten member board that gets their seats one of three ways: through election from within conservation districts, as representatives of important state natural resource agencies, or by appointment of the Governor of Washington.  The Conservation Commission is a voice for conservation districts on issues of regional or statewide importance. It lobbies at the Governor’s office, natural resource agencies, and the Washington State Legislature.  They also administer grant funding that is distributed to conservation districts.

Conservation Districts’ method of providing guidance for private natural resource protection is collaborative, voluntary, and most importantly non-regulatory.  However, the Act of 1939 and subsequent legislation has not given districts direct funding.  The Washington State Legislature gave districts the ability to request a per parcel and per acre special assessment with the approval of the local legislative authority (County Commissioners) in the late 1980s.  Yet, only about 15 of the 47 districts in Washington are currently collecting an assessment.  The remaining districts’ funding comes as grants from various local, state, federal, tribal, and private sources.

Districts continue to work with cooperators—individual landowners and leasees—on soil erosion activities, irrigation efficiencies, livestock management, forest stand improvements (reducing the amount of flammable materials such as branches and shrubs that would intensify fires should one start, thinning, and pest management), general agricultural land, and water quality protection activities.  It is imperative the districts continue their work as they are often the sole source of much needed technical advice that landowners can call upon to make conservation improvements to their lands.

Our non-regulatory approach is critical because it allows for a more open and free-flowing dialogue between district staff and the cooperator regarding the cooperator’s operation, activities, and needs.  Landowners typically do not wish to divulge some of their operational information to regulatory agencies for fear of accidentally walking themselves into a fine or other regulatory action.  A district can hear the same information a regulatory agency staff member will hear and will provide clear guidance to the landowner on how to resolve the issue without the cooperator having to fear a reprisal.

Districts are now being more frequently asked to lead or at least be key participants in watershed planning, salmon recovery efforts, urban conservation activities, and more. District board and staff bring their experienced approach of working one-on-one with landowners to larger groups and encourage open dialogue and open minds to identifying realistic solutions to the concerns and issues facing the community.

One of the great accomplishments of districts over the past ten to fifteen years has been their work with the dairy industry to implement necessary on-farm conservation practices to meet water quality standards as required by Washington State’s Dairy Nutrient Management Act that was passed in the 1990s.  Using funding dedicated by the Washington State Legislature, districts worked with producers to develop very detailed nutrient management plans, construct or improve waste storage ponds, and implemented riparian buffer practices.

Of all of these relationships that districts maintain, none is more important than those the districts foster with cooperators: the individual landowners and leasees.  This is an important and fundamental distinction. Cooperators are most vested in the lands that they manage. They know their land the best and they stand to lose the most by not conserving the natural resources that are under their care.  Some districts even work on public lands.  Sometimes this work is undergone at the request of the agency or municipality who recognize that the district’s resources will work best to address the issue.  Typically, district work on publicly managed lands is requested by a private individual who has a lease or other agreement with the public agency and needs help implementing conservation practices to protect natural resources.  Work of this nature may involve a livestock producer who manages a lease on state or federal lands and would like to make some conservation improvements to improve the health of the grasses or nearby riparian zones.

Conservation districts and our partners provide the resources the cooperators need to achieve the conservation goals they have identified and that fit within their overall management and business plans.

More can be learned about Washington State’s conservation districts and the activities of all districts by visiting the Washington State Conservation Commission website at www.scc.wa.gov. For more information about the Washington Association of Conservation Districts, please visit www.wacd.org.

One Response to “WA Conservation Districts: An Introduction”

  • How did I never know about this? These non-regulatory districts are ingenious from what I can tell. This is exactly the sort of honest, community-driven conservation effort that can see results. No resentments or secrets are created, as can often happen with inflexible regulation - especially in the absence of education regarding conservation issues.
    by: Sam Blisson: Wednesday 8th of February 2012

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