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Indiana Conservation at a Crossroads

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Larry Clemens

The Indiana Soil and Water Conservation Board has released a study that proposes major changes in the way conservation programs are funded and managed. After a year of study, a task force report is recommending some major changes in the way soil and water conservation districts are structured and funded.  Soil Board Chairman Larry Clemens says continued cuts in funding are forcing the change, “Change is already happening with a decline in local, state, and federal funds.” The Clean Water Indiana program is funded by the Indiana Cigarette Tax. With fewer and fewer people smoking, tax revenue has been declining about 4% per year on average.   He added many counties have been cutting back on funding for local SWCDs. This has resulted in cutbacks in staff and in reduced services. The report projects this trend will only get worse in the years to come.

 

The report, which was presented to the State Soil Board on Monday, recommends county districts begin to work collaboratively to address conservation on a regional basis.  Clemens said this is already beginning to happen, “We have seen this with our Clean Water Indiana grants that are being used by districts to partner with other counties on regional projects and programs.”  He said the board will continue to use these grants to provide financial incentives to county organizations to work together.  The report recommended that local SWCD leaders begin to educate county officials on the benefits of approaching conservation on a regional basis and sharing resources with neighboring counties.

 

The long term recommendations in the report call for doing away with county SWCDs and creating organizations based on watersheds. Soil board member Bob Eddleman says the watershed approach is a better way to deliver conservation services, “Watershed planning looks at what the natural resources are like today and what do we want them to look like in 10 years, and what do we have to change to get to that point.” He told HAT taking a watershed approach to conservation is a much more effective and efficient way to deliver conservation services.

 

The current county district structure was established over 70 years ago, and the report says it is time for a new structure and revised focus. But the analysis admits there will likely be resistance to change on the local level as SWCD employees fear for their jobs and county officials fear a loss of local control.  Several of the board members said the change must be locally driven and that state dollars should be used as an incentive to encourage change. Others expressed concern that change could come too slowly to avoid a loss of services as funding continues to decline. Comments will be taken from local districts over the next year before a final plan is adopted.

Read the task force report here.

 

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