HELENA — Across Montana, the state’s 58 conservation districts are partnering with landowners on conservation projects both big and small. For years, those independent organizations have gotten a significant portion of their funding through the state’s coal severance tax. However, with those revenues expected to decrease in the coming years, state lawmakers are beginning to look at other possible options for funding the districts.
You can find one example of the type of work conservation districts do on the north shore of Lake Helena. There, the Lewis and Clark Conservation District worked with two landowners to restore about 600 feet of the shoreline, to protect against erosion.
“We’ve been doing these projects for a couple of years now, and we’ve been able to establish this base of landowners on the north shore here that kind of have knowledge of what we’re doing,” said Connor Mertz, a resource technician with the district. “They’ve helped each other out on these projects, which is really huge for everybody, and they’re also really good advocates for doing this type of work going forward.”
Mertz said ice and other forces have caused significant erosion along the shore. In March, the conservation district came in for a “willow soil lift” project. They placed layers of willows and biodegradable fabric on the shoreline, with hopes that it will stabilize the soil in the coming years.
“We’ve already got a couple feet of growth, visually, of plant growth from the surface, but what people aren’t seeing, at least initially here, is the five feet of willow stem that’s in the bank,” Mertz said. “That’s really the bread and butter of this project. Those willow stakes are developing these really extensive root systems that’s going to glue it together.”
The partnership has positives for everyone involved. For the property owners, the work helps protect them from losing usable land to the water. The conservation benefits include improved water quality and wildlife habitat.
The district got crews of volunteers to assist with cutting the thousands of willows used in the project.
“Volunteer involvement – that’s what helps keep the projects’ costs like this down and make it accessible to landowners,” said Mertz. “That’s really important.”
Conservation districts in Montana date back to the 1930s, when leaders began creating organizations to support soil and water conservation after the experience of the Dust Bowl. Today, their work is wide and varied. Under state law, they’re tasked with permitting when landowners plan any work that affects a stream. Chris Evans, the Lewis and Clark Conservation District administrator, said they’ve also helped landowners address noxious weeds, encouraged planting seeds to attract pollinator species and done educational programs for youth and for adults.
“It’s not just a single landowner that benefits; it’s the greater public,” she said.
During a meeting in July, Rebecca Boslough-King – executive director of the Montana Association of Conservation Districts – told the state Environmental Quality Council that districts in south-central Montana have played big roles in the restoration after the June flooding.
“That really does convey their value,” she said.
Each conservation district has an independent budget. The first main source of funding is a local property tax mill levy. For districts that don’t bring in enough through those levies to perform their duties, they’re able to apply for administrative grants through the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to bring them up to a baseline funding level – usually totaling around $40,000 a year between state and local money.
Much of that state funding comes from the coal severance tax, collected from mining companies that produce more than 50,000 tons of coal per year. The tax previously brought in around $60 million a year. Over the last few years, though, it has declined, with only around $40 million coming in for fiscal year 2021. The state has projected that number will fall even further in the next decade.
“We know it’s coming; it’s not a matter of if, it’s when that coal tax money is not enough,” Evans said.
Evans said she has worked with employees at other districts across the state, and it’s clear funding remains an obstacle to the work they do.
“We’ve had some pretty severe turnover with the staff at the conservation districts statewide, and it’s partially because of funding issues,” she said. “A lot of conservation districts can’t afford to offer much in terms of benefits.”
Because of the ongoing uncertainty, the 2021 Montana Legislature called for a study on conservation district funding. The Environmental Quality Council has been working on that study throughout the year, and staff produced a report on the issue.
At their July meeting, the EQC approved moving forward with a proposed bill draft that could be considered during the 2023 legislative session. It would increase the amount of state financial support to $6 million a year, starting with the available coal severance taxes and directing some marijuana sales taxes to cover whatever remains.
The Lewis and Clark Conservation District raises well over $100,000 through its local mill levy, so Evans said they’re not reliant on the state administrative grants in the same way that districts with smaller budgets are. However, she said they do receive DNRC grants to help them do larger projects, like the Lake Helena restoration. Regardless of their own need, she said a proposal like the EQC’s could be a big step for districts statewide.