TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Third-generation farmer Lance Griff wanted to improve the soil health and conserve water on the 3,700 acres he farms with his father, Ron, on the notoriously water-short Salmon Tract in southern Twin Falls County.
He believed planting cover crops and using no-till farming practices would help achieve those goals. His interest in them landed him at the Twin Falls Soil and Water Conservation District.
“They definitely provided support, and they provided expertise and were able to direct me to funding sources to try different projects,” he said.
Those contributions spurred his farm’s ongoing evolution toward sustainability. The practices are improving water infiltration and soil moisture and reducing erosion. In the process, he is using less fuel and labor.
From both soil health and economic perspectives, “we feel like it makes sense,” he said.
There’s a soil-health movement going on, and farmers need the resources and support that conservation districts provide, he said.
“They are definitely well-respected and viewed as useful,” he said.
A former board member of his local district, Griff had seen the results of district efforts — from improving soils and irrigation efficiency to repairing eroded stream banks. He also saw the value of hosting project demonstrations to educate farmers and a public that is becoming increasingly disconnected from agriculture, he said.
While soil conservation districts had their baptism of fire following the devastation of the 1930s Dust Bowl, the movement got its beginning decades earlier. It was championed by Hugh Hammond Bennett, a young college graduate who went to work as a soil surveyor for USDA in 1905.
Now recognized as the “father of conservation,” Bennett spent 20 years trying to bring attention to the nation’s eroded soils and the need for conservation. Lawmakers finally started to listen in the late 1920s, and the Dust Bowl — a drought that led to massive dust storms and topsoil losses across a swath land reaching from Texas to Nebraska — fueled the movement.
The groundwork for the Dust Bowl was laid in the early 1900s when high demand for wheat, generous federal farm policies and a series of wet years caused a land boom in the Great Plains. New machinery made for easier and faster farming, and vast tracts of native grasslands in the Plains — more than 100 million acres — were plowed to plant crops, according to the USDA.
But the stock market crashed in 1929, and the Great Depression followed. Wheat prices plummeted, and farmers in the Plains plowed up even more land to try to recoup their losses. Prices dropped further, and drought conditions set in, causing widespread crop failure. Many farmers abandoned their fields to find work elsewhere, leaving behind a landscape that had changed from protective grassland to exposed soil.
The result was large dust storms that blew exposed soil as far as the East Coast. Bennett seized the opportunity to explain the cause of the dust storms to Congress and push for a permanent soil conservation agency. The Soil Conservation Service was created in 1935, and Bennett served as its first chief.
Its predecessor, the temporary Soil Erosion Service — also led by Bennett — had established demonstration projects to show landowners the benefits of conservation. As early as 1935, USDA managers began to search for ways to extend conservation assistance to more farmers, believing the solution was to establish democratically organized soil conservation districts to lead the conservation effort at the local level.
To that end, USDA drafted the Standard State Soil Conservation District Law, which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent to the governors of all states in 1937. The first conservation district was organized in the Brown Creek watershed of North Carolina that same year.
In 1994, Congress gave the Soil Conservation Service a new name: the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Boots on the ground
Today there are nearly 3,000 conservation districts across the country. And while their mission has evolved to also embrace water conservation and water and air quality, they remain focused on local boots-on-the-ground efforts.
“Conservation districts played a pivotal role following the Great Depression, and they’re as relevant now as they ever have been,” Brent Van Dyke, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, said.
The only way to feed a growing population is to be sustainable and good stewards of natural resources, he said. With a conservation district in nearly every county and parish in the U.S., districts are helping farmers, ranchers and communities accomplish that.
Conservation districts work to protect soil productivity, water quality and quantity, air quality and wildlife habitat. They conserve and restore wetlands, protect groundwater resources and control soil erosion. That work is done on federal, state and private land.
Districts bring people, agencies, utilities and government together to network to solve natural resource issues identified at the local level, he said.
“We’re that conduit that connects all the dots,” he said.
Each district is unique because natural resource issues vary across the U.S. The district board consists of locally elected leaders who volunteer their time. They identify concerns through locally generated consensus and work to address those concerns, he said.
“Our strength is in that locally led initiative,” Van Dyke said.
Districts empower and equip landowners with information and the resources they need to make decisions and implement best-management practices, he said. They work with millions of landowners and land managers nationwide to provide technical and financial assistance.
“We solve major resource concerns through this process,” he said.
NACD believes in voluntary, incentive-based conservation with people agreeing on what needs to be done to better their community. Without conservation districts, much of the conservation taking place today wouldn’t happen, he said.
Mandatory federal policy isn’t going to accomplish as much as the voluntary efforts led by districts that believe in what they’re doing and want to make things better for the community, he said, adding that checking a regulatory box doesn’t get to what caused the issue or how to keep it from happening again.
With the districts’ coordination, everyone has “skin in the game,” Van Dyke said.
Districts are a government body with elected supervisors who lead conservation efforts at the county level, Steve Schuyler, NRCS district conservationist for Twin Falls County, said.
The supervisors tell NRCS what the concerns are and to prioritize them, he said.
“Everything we do meets the priorities set up for us for our district,” he said.
In Twin Falls County, for example, the goals include sage grouse conservation, improving water quality, managing livestock waste, stream bank restoration, soil health and weed management, he said.
“Districts are a critical link in getting any conservation done,” he said.
They work with local recreation districts, cities, canal companies and other agencies, and those partnerships are crucial, he said.
“Partnerships are how we get projects implemented because our agency doesn’t have the money or personnel to get a project in,” Schuyler said.
One such partnership with the Twin Falls Canal Company focused on reducing sediment and phosphates going into the Snake River by building settling ponds for irrigation runoff. Another involved stockgrowers and the U.S. Forest Service installing troughs and water lines on grazing land to keep cattle away from creek banks.
The district also partnered with a neighboring conservation district and an irrigation district to install pumps on the Snake River to supplement irrigation water in an area where well levels were dropping.
“A lot of these projects would not get done without our district’s help,” Schuyler said.
Not only do the districts set priorities, they also provide funding for conservation projects, he said.
Nationwide, NRCS funding for conservation programs totaled more than $4.8 billion in 2017. Funding at the local level varies from year to year, depending on participation in NRCS programs.
Revenue for the Twin Falls conservation district in 2017 included $20,000 in federal funding, $21,281 in state funding and $8,281 in county funding for a total of $49,531. But grants from several sources, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, provides additional funding for conservation projects.
Twin Falls County is home to three conservation districts — Twin Falls, Balanced Rock and Snake River. Combined, the districts received about $1.02 million in federal and state grants in 2017. With cooperators contributing another $774,000, about $1.8 million was spent on conservation grant projects in the county.
Conservation priorities have changed over the decades, and they will continue to change as a growing population puts more pressure on natural resources, Schuyler said.
“There will always be concerns about natural resources and how to preserve and protect them. The role of the districts will continue to be relevant, and maybe even more so, going forward,” Schuyler said.
But they also face the threat of lack of participation as farms get larger and more demands are placed on producers’ time, he said.
“I hope they don’t go the way of the Grange,” he said.
Beyond the farm
Conservation districts have a unique role in communities, Bill Bitzenberg, chairman of the Twin Falls Soil and Water Conservation District, said.
“Districts are where the rubber meets the road. We are the link between quality of life and the community,” he said.
No one else is going to make suggestions and provide farmers and ranchers with assistance to improve things for the benefit of local communities. Districts link those private landowners with agencies to accomplish things that matter to the community, he said.
They help farmers and ranchers conserve water, improve water and air quality, reduce wind and water erosion, reduce wildfires, improve wildlife habitat and conserve species.
“That’s why we’re important and needed now more than ever. Districts are the vehicle that helps improve that link between the community and producers,” he said.
“It used to be all about how do we help producers make more money. Now it’s all about quality of life and how it helps everybody,” Bitzenberg said.
The goals have also gone beyond keeping federal regulators from the door to making everybody a better member of the community, he said.
“Nobody else does this; it’s just the soil and water conservation districts,” Bitzenberg said.