Conservation programs have evolved; local, state, federal partnership poised to face future challenges
North Carolina celebrates 75 years of soil and water conservation in 2012. The long-term success of conservation efforts re-mains linked to the unique local, state and federal partnership.
As Dick Fowler, executive director of the N.C. Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts puts it: "Having all these partners means there are more tools in the soil and water conservation toolbox to help landowners." Technical assistance, educa-tional outreach and cost-share programs and are all hallmarks of the soil and water conservation partner-ship in North Carolina.
There are 96 conservation districts statewide, supported by county governments, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Division of Soil and Water Conservation, the Soil and Water Conservation Commission, the N.C. Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the N.C. Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation.
Soil and water conser-vation efforts themselves have evolved as communities and needs have changed. For example, when Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of soil conservation, began taking his message across the country, the nation was in the midst of the Dust Bowl with top soil being blown away with great regularity and soil being washed away whenever heavy rains came. Today, soil and water conservation districts serve the needs of rural and urban areas alike, taking the lessons learned through years of agricultural conservation efforts and applying them as well to urban challenges of storm water run-off, sedimentation and nutrient management.
When Bennett began his crusades of conservation, he held a simple belief that our society must put every acre of land to its best use and treat every acre according to its needs. He also believed that conservation should be voluntary and incentive-based, not regulatory. Those philosophies remain at the foundation of the ongoing soil and water conservation efforts.
In an era when most people farmed, conservation districts worked mainly with landowners and farmers.
Today, programs are also geared to urban and residential property owners. Soil and water conservation districts are working with homeowners association to better manage runoff. They are looking for opportunities for energy credits for farms and are participating in projects where methane is being captured from swine waste lagoons and used for energy. Districts are identifying natural resource concerns in their communities and are working with landowners and farmers to meet their conservation goals. The programs and resource assistance are as unique as the communities they serve.
Conservation education is still a big component of efforts today. Sandra Weitzel, with the state division of soil and water conservation, said educational outreach begins with third-grade students, continues with middle and high school students and also involves adults.
Starting educational efforts early is important, Weitzel said. "It is important for them to understand that they need to be stewards and that they have a responsibility to the world around them. For some of kids in the urban city, their feet never touch dirt. It is important they realize they live in a bigger world."
There are a variety of educational conservation awareness opportunities for students, including poster and essay contests, class outings at parks, environmental field days, an annual week-long Resource Conservation Workshop at N.C. State University, and Envirothon, a national competition geared to middle and high schoolers that focus on five key topics of conservation.
It is hard to imagine the immense outreacg task Bennett faced. In the beginning, he was a voice of one. Through his efforts and as his message spread, that voice of one grew to what today carries the weight of 3,000 district officials across the country, Fowler said.
Providing technical assist-ance and expertise has been one of the key principles since the beginning of conservation efforts, and that is one of the strengths of the partnership between local, state and federal officials.
"For two-thirds of the time conservation districts have been in existence, they have been effective in offering technical assistance that helps a landowner's operation and also benefits the public," Fowler said.
Patricia Harris, director of the state Division of Soil and Water Conservation, sees districts remaining focused on the future. Water quantity will likely be a key natural resource concern as we begin the next 75 years of conservation work, she said. The Agricultural Water Resources Assistance Program, or AgWRAP, will target efforts and resources towards increasing ag water capacity by constructing more farm ponds and renovating older ponds and improving water-use efficiency.