Conservation district seeks members

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-30-2023 8:38 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Aiming to strengthen local say in how federal money is funneled into environmental projects, the White River Conservation District is seeking a new board member.

Conservation districts are local subdivisions of state government meant to carry out natural resource management programs at the local level. The districts, established across the country in 1939, are holdovers from the Dust Bowl era, when the United States Department of Agriculture was in search of local knowledge to roll out new conservation programs.

The White River Conservation District, or WRCD, operates within the White, Wells, Waits, Ompompanoosuc and Connecticut River watersheds, and works directly with the USDA. Self-nominations for the committee that manages WRCD, known as the Board of Supervisors, are due by Feb. 7.

In many ways, today’s funding landscape isn’t so different from what it was when the districts were first established a little less than a century ago, District Manager Jennifer Byrne said. Government agencies are flush with money. The challenge, she said, is how to put it to work.

Last summer, the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act doubled the money available to the USDA for conservation and working land management by funneling roughly $20 million into the agency’s pockets.

“But it’s hard to get it all out of the door,” Byrne said. “It gets sort of stuck.”

A board of citizens, managing the funding for their direct community, is the people power that the conservation district uses to get that money unstuck.

There are roughly 3,000 districts across the country. Sometimes they’re based on county lines, other times watersheds mark the boundaries of the district, as is the case with White River, which is one of 14 districts in Vermont.

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One of five WRCD board members, Niko Horster, owner of Broad Acres Farm, a beef farm in Vershire, sees conservation districts as a way to cut through bureaucratic noise and get funding where it needs to go.

“When the USDA looks for people to implement stuff, it’s us historically,” he said. “It’s an old institution from those times of sort of saying, well let’s let the locals who own land decide how to best manage the natural resources that they have.”

Last year the district put aside $30,000 of federal money in a local fund to go towards energy audits for any landowner in the district, which are historically overlooked by the USDA, Byrne said.

The board is in the midst of processing applications for that funding now.

But the board is aging, and Horster hopes that more young people will get involved.

“I’m in my mid-50s and I’m the youngest one on the board,” he said. “We need to change that.”

Board members, referred to as supervisors, are elected for five-year terms, in which they meet monthly and are paid at the state per diem rate of $50 per meeting. A supervisor must be a resident of the district, but is not required to own land. However, to self-nominate for the election, a candidate must receive 25 signatures from landowners within the district.

Most often, no one runs and the district manager will tap someone to serve on the board, Byrne said. But if someone does run, then an election will be held.

“In which case if we only have one person and they vote for themselves, they’re going to get on the board,” she said.

There’s power in the position, which is open for the taking, Byrne said.

“This is a way for a group down to the scale of even a neighborhood to get together and say ‘in our area, this is what we really care about,’ ” she said. “This is how we put money in the hands of the people.”

The form for self-nomination can be accessed online at: https://tinyurl.com/4c24uk3f.

Frances Mize is a Report for America Corps Member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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