STANTON — The history of conservation districts dates back to the “Dirty Thirties,” a time in this country’s history when people were fighting to stay financially afloat, as well as battling the destructive dust storms that severely damaged the nation’s agricultural efforts.
Conservation districts were created after politicians saw the effects of the Dust Bowl era firsthand.
“The dust moved from the plains to Washington, D.C.,” said Montcalm Conservation District Bruce Noll at a recent Montcalm County Board of Commissioners meeting. “When Congress saw the dust clouds in Washington, D.C., they knew something had to be done.”
Michigan’s first conservation districts were established under Public Act 297 of 1937. The creation of the Montcalm Conservation District followed in 1948, shortly after the Great Depression had winded down.
Today, Montcalm Conservation District officials are feeling a bit depressed about their own budget. They are requesting $15,000 from Montcalm County to help the conservation district’s looming budget deficit of $23,988 for this fiscal year.
The conservation district’s tree sale is an indicator of how times have changed. At one time, the tree sale raised as much as $30,000 for the district. In recent years, the tree sale has only generated about $13,000.
The tree sale, which is the conservation district’s only fundraiser, is taking place now. The deadline for ordering trees has been extended from March 31 to April 4 due to the ongoing cold weather, according to Montcalm Conservation District Executive Director Judy Cloer.
“The tree sale’s not going well, but you look at this winter … who can think about buying a tree?” Cloer noted.
Call the Montcalm Conservation District located in the Stanton Service Center at (989) 831-4606 ext. 3 to place a tree order. A variety of conifers, fruit trees, shrubs and multiple other plants and items are available for sale.
Conservation district’s mission
The Montcalm Conservation District’s mission is to protect Montcalm County’s natural resources through education, outreach and partnerships.
According to Noll, the conservation district offers the following services:
• Answering natural resource questions or direct people to the proper agencies. Noll said an average of three people per day visit the Stanton office with questions.
• Managing contracts for the Farmland Preservation Program as part of Michigan’s Public Act 116 of 1974. Cloer said conservation district staff reviewed about two dozen farmland preservation requests in the past year.
• Partnering with the Mecosta Conservation District for the Michigan Agricultural Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), a voluntary program for landowners (mostly farmers). A total of 19 Montcalm County properties are currently verified, comprising 7,720 acres of land.
• Forester Ben Stein provides assistance to anyone with forests on their land. The forester position is funded by a $60,000 state grant through the forest assistance program. Stein works to promote forest health and sustainable management, provides technical assistance and promotes the qualified forest program (anyone with 20 acres of forest or more must have a forest management plan). Stein joined the Montcalm Conservation District last October and has assisted more than 50 landowners with more than 300 acres since then.
• Managing the Comden-Towle Model Forest, a 69-acre woodlot near Entrican.
• Reviewing, approving and signing Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) plans.
• Distributing soil surveys and education.
• Hosting an agricultural and natural resources field day for local youths in May (participation is down), a summer camp at Comden-Towle Model Forest in conjunction with Montcalm Community College, Otter Camp for troubled youths in conjunction with the Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office, a conservation district tour, natural resource workshops and scholarships for local youths.
Worrisome outlook for district
According to Noll, the Montcalm Conservation District hasn’t received funds from the state since 2008. He said state officials once promised to help fund conservation districts with $20,000 per year, but $19,000 is the most that was ever given. That number has since dwindled to zero funds.
The conservation district hasn’t received any funding from local townships either, with the exception of Evergreen Township, which recently gave $1,000 to the district.
Montcalm County Commissioner Betty Kellenberger of Carson City asked Noll whether the conservation district mails letters seeking funds from townships. Noll said yes, but at the most only five of the county’s 20 townships have contributed anything to the district.
“I’ve been in township meetings where they said we received the letter, why should we do anything with it?” Kellenberger said. “And I’ve been in meetings where they received the letter and had a representative there who explained it to them and they agreed to contribute to it. It really does take a personal contact as opposed to a letter.”
Montcalm County Controller-Administrator Chris Hyzer told commissioners they do have the option of giving the conservation district money from the county’s contingency fund. He offered to put together an updated report of the county’s budget so commissioners can consider the conservation district’s request at a meeting in April.
“We would appreciate your support,” Noll told commissioners. “We need that $15,000 and we will still have a shortfall.
“We’re hoping that the forestry grant is going to be renewed next year,” Cloer added. “We’ll be OK for a few months, but the outlook for another year or so does not look good at all.”
For more information about the Montcalm Conservation District, visit montcalmcd.org online.