Madison Conservation District maps future

Madison Conservation District maps future

ENNIS—Montana has 58 conservation districts, but the Madison Conservation District (MCD) recently joined a list of a dozen or fewer to put a strategic plan in place.

The MCD was established by the state legislature in 1946 and is formally governed by state codes and laws. It didn’t have a self-defined mission or vision statement until now. The new strategic plan is the culmination of nearly a year of work and thought by the board of directors.

“As a conservation district, we have a really broad scope that covers a lot of natural resource areas,” says Water Programs Manager and board chairman Ethan Kunard. “The goal was to define what the conservation district’s focus should be. What are our values and our vision?”

The MCD isn’t classified as a nonprofit, but it operates similarly to one, investing time and energy into fundraising and outreach programs with a high value on community input. And since the district is also funded in part by the local taxpayer base, it wants to respond to the needs and priority of the people who live in its geographic realm. 

A key element of that inclusivity is representation of the many varied stakeholder perspectives around Madison County, Kunard says. Half of the county is covered by the Ruby Valley Conservation District, but balancing agriculture, development, wildlife and recreation is a perennial challenge. One way of addressing that, Kunard says, is having a board that reflects the variety seen in the general population.

“It’s a never-ending task and it’s always going to be changing,” he says. “We want to try and include a diversity of perspectives.”

Kunard says the conservation district is in a position to be a community leader and mediator, facilitating some of those unpleasant yet necessary conversations where differing values may clash, such as balancing conservation and recreation, or development and agriculture. But with the right approach, different ideas can be brought together for the betterment of the community, the environment and the economy all at once.

Conservation districts around the state have different budgets and also face challenges unique to their geographic areas, and some newer challenges facing the MCD include population growth and land use planning. Those will also need to be taken into consideration as Madison County enters the last year of the decade.

Dan Clark, director of Montana State University’s Local Government Center, helped the conservation district set up its strategic plan, developing a mission statement, value set, vision and a prioritized set of projects and goals for the next three to five years.

A key factor in those goals is the Watershed Restoration Plan (WRP), which has been a longtime project of the Madison Watershed Council and is currently in its final draft stages. The WRP was largely influenced by data presented in September by the state Department of Environmental Quality, which measured contaminant levels in a number of local streams and tributaries.

The DEQ identified a few streams of concern within the jurisdiction of the Madison Conservation District, including Elk Creek, Hot Springs Creek, Moore Creek and O’Dell Creek. One of MCD’s high-priority project will be working with the Madison Watershed Council to get those streams back to full health for fish populations and both agricultural and residential uses.

Other goals for the conservation district include the completion of a long-term restoration project on Jack Creek, instituting range monitoring for landowners to monitor the health of their land and the water that runs through it, workshops for community members and collecting further watershed data to monitor stream health.

In the realm of education, tours of present and potential project sites, classes on soil health and week control, water use roundtables and pollinator classes are all on the list for the future of the conservation district. 

One such project is already in the works, as the MCD partners with Ennis Schools and the GROWW Program (Gardens, Resources, Outdoors, Wildlife and Watersheds) to institute an observation beehive in the campus’s new greenhouse to pollinate the school gardens and allow students a closer look at how their food is grown.

The MCD will also work on revamping their website to create a resource library for stakeholders and interested parties in any or all of the projects and educational programs the district is involved in.

“There’s so much information out there and so many resources,” Kunard says. “It can get overwhelming.”

As the MCD continues to trailblaze among its peers across Montana, the hope is that more community members will get involved in protecting the things that make Madison County such a popular place to live, vacation and recreate: its rivers, natural areas, agriculture and wildlife. There’s a balance to be struck, and the new strategic plan will strive to do just that.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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