Natural Resource Conservation Districts deserve more attention

And so do Chestnut, Persimmon, Yellowbud Hickory, Shellbark Hickory, Honey Locust, Hazel, Black Walnut, and Oak.

Natural Resource Conservation Districts deserve more attention

What’s the common thread  between trees at no cost for Thetford’s Conservation Commission, a Watershed Action Plan for Lake Fairlee, a delegation of local farmers (one from Thetford) attending a farming conference in the Virgin Islands, a stream bank stabilization project at Aloha Camp, and an upcoming sale of fruit and nut-bearing trees so residents may provide for the future? 

These are all examples of projects created through the White River Natural Resource Conservation District (WRNRCD) that serves the Connecticut and Ompompanoosuc river watersheds (see map). It’s easy to miss this organization or to confuse it with other entities like the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), the Farm Service Agency (FSA), or the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), the latter two run by the USDA (US Department of Agriculture).

What sets WRNRCD and other Conservation Districts apart is that they are democratically governed groups whose agenda is set by the needs and desires of local farmers, forestland owners, and conservationists with the overall goal of maintaining healthy and productive working landscapes. While Conservation Districts do apply for financial support from state and federal government programs, their work is led by community stakeholders in a bottom-up model, rather than directed by government agencies in the more familiar top-down scenario. 

Conservation Districts had their beginnings as a response to the Great Plains drought in the 1930s that gave rise to the Great Dust Bowl. Widespread crop failures due to drought led to farm abandonment and exposed soils. Repeated windstorms blew once-productive land into great dust clouds that swept 300 miles to the Atlantic ocean and darkened Washington D.C. in 1935 just as Congress was debating a proposed soil conservation law. On April 27, 1935, Congress recognized that "the wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands ...  is a menace to the national welfare," and it directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) as a permanent agency in the USDA. In 1994, Congress changed SCS’s name to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) “to better reflect the broadened scope of the agency’s concerns.”

Even in 1935 USDA managers began to search for ways to extend conservation assistance to more farmers. They provided top-down demonstration projects showcasing better farming methods but farmers were not adopting those practices, mainly because they were too expensive and too technical for farmers to implement on their own. In addition there was concern among farmers that these methods would be forced on them without their input. The USDA managers “believed the solution was to establish democratically organized soil conservation districts to lead the conservation planning effort at the local level.” The idea was that a local government unit made up of farmers and “land occupiers” would control the decision-making while receiving the financial and technical support of State and Federal government. “To create this framework for cooperation, USDA drafted the Standard State Soil Conservation Districts Law, which President Roosevelt sent to the governors of all the states in 1937.”

Today there are almost 3,000 conservation districts across the US, almost one per county. They work directly with landowners to better manage soil health and clean water and to promote forest and wildlife conservation.

On the local level, Thetford has enjoyed several benefits from this program. To address river and stream bank erosion caused by agricultural deforestation, the WRNRCD offers its Trees for Streams initiative, funded by the State and other partners. This has a twofold purpose: first to improve water quality by filtering out sediment and excess nutrients in runoff before it hits the stream; second, the shade of trees cools water for better fish habitat and continuous buffers of trees along waterways provide interconnected wildlife corridors. WRNRCD provided trees at no cost to the Thetford Conservation Commission as part of their riverbank and floodplain restoration project at the Taylor Floodplain Preserve in Post Mills. 

Water is also a central issue that is addressed in the Lake Fairlee Watershed Action Plan funded through WRNRCD. This plan surveyed the watershed around the lake for primary causes of poor water quality and habitat degradation that contribute to “significantly decreasing” lake clarity and rising levels of algae-boosting phosphate. The plan identified various projects, like impounding sediment from roads and artificial beaches and installing stream buffers that will improve conditions when implemented.

Contributing to these goals, WRNRCD obtained funding from the Vermont DEC for a stream bank stabilization project at Aloha Camp.

Sending Vermont farmers to the Virgin Islands may not seem relevant. However, it is the start of a workforce development partnership to establish certified conservation planners in both locations. This strategy will attract federal dollars for farming assistance for which farmers will need a conservation plan to be eligible.

In fact, the WRNRCD assists many farmers in the White River and Connecticut River watersheds, helping them to comply with Required Agricultural Practices that reduce the impact of farming on erosion and water quality and coordinating funding applications to state and federal agencies. They even apply for grants on behalf of farmers, who have little time in which to handle paperwork and deadlines.

The many specialists working for WRNRCD include grazing planners, nutrient management planners (think fertilizer and manure runoff), wetland rules compliance and wetland restoration assistance, and staff to help with farm and crop insurance and agroforestry initiatives. There is even a farm equipment rental program administered through the Connecticut River Watershed Farmers Alliance (CRWFA), a partner of WRNRCD. The CRWFA is “a farmer-driven 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to helping agricultural producers in the Connecticut River Watershed in VT and NH improve agricultural land stewardship practices for clean waterways, healthy soil, and productive landscapes through workshops, discussions, resource sharing, and education. They serve as advocates for their community, ensuring voices of farmers are well represented in legislative and policy initiatives affecting the agriculture industry.” 

In spite of all these offerings, the WRNRCD finds itself under-utilized by the community that its district is designed to serve. Publicity is hard to come by, but perhaps their profile will be lifted a little by their upcoming Tree Sale. The Conservation District is partnering with Yellowbud Farm for an edible tree sale. The trees include Chestnut, Persimmon, Yellowbud Hickory, Shellbark Hickory, Honey Locust, Hazel, Black Walnut, and Oak. The trees are grown by methods that maximize quality and ability to be transplanted, including inoculation with symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi.

Please place orders by April 24th. Pickup is planned for Saturday, April 27th, in White River Junction, VT. Pay by cash or check at pick-up.

This initiative is a plan for the future to meet local needs for oils, carbohydrates, and sugars when we need it. Building local food resiliency underpins much of what WRNRCD has to offer.

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