Nov/Dec 2013Earth and Water, Wind and Sun
Keeping it Localby David Lucas

South Carolina's forty-six soil and water conservation districts receive state funding and organizational guidance from the LW&C's Conservation Districts program. The districts themselves are a subdivision of state government, and the DNR is responsible for administering the state law that created them, signed by Governor Olin Johnston in 1937, says Conservation Districts Program Manager Marc Cribb.

"The nationwide conservation districts movement came about as a result of federal efforts to combat soil erosion problems in the 'dustbowl' states and in other regions of the country," says Cribb. "President Roosevelt sent model legislation to all the states to create local conservation districts for the purpose of combating erosion and sedimentation. South Carolina was one of the first states to adopt those laws."

Early on, the architects of the conservation district legislation realized that a top-down approach wouldn't work. Instead, they envisioned a system whereby local citizens would decide how to best direct available resources in their own communities, and that early emphasis on local decision-making is reflected in the modern system in place today. A board of five commissioners in each soil and water conservation district (three elected locally and two appointed by the S. C. Natural Resources Board) determines the scope and direction of that district's program. While technical assistance aimed at helping landowners is a constant, no two districts are exactly the same, and the needs of fast-growing metropolitan areas such as Charleston or Greenville counties can be quite different from those of more rural parts of the state.

"We work with the districts in ways that we both agree will be beneficial," says Cribb, "no one dictates to the districts a laundry list of 'you will do this, or you will do that,' no two districts are exactly the same."

Just a few examples: Since 2009, the Charleston County district has leveraged federal grant funds to address water quality issues by assisting landowners with replacing failing septic systems. The main goal of the program is to reduce bacteria levels in the waterways, so that shellfish beds in the county can be reopened for harvesting. In districts where agriculture is still a major economic driver, "no-till" planting equipment is available for rent at nominal prices, with the goal of encouraging landowners to try the equipment and adopt no-till or low-till farming practices that reduce soil erosion. In Jasper County, the district was able to work with city and county governments to create the Blue Heron Environmental Education Center in Ridgeland, and in Florence, the district worked with the county parks department to open the Environmental Discovery Center at Lynches River Park. Several districts, including Horry, Sumter and Oconee, are protecting family farms with conservation easements.

Staff in each district office can help local landowners navigate federal programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service that provide technical assistance and cost-sharing for agricultural properties whose owners adopt environmentally and wildlife-friendly management strategies. South Carolina landowners receive an average of $25 million a year through these federal farm bill programs. Working, family-owned farms are some of the biggest beneficiaries of these programs, but far from the only ones, according to Cribb. Hundreds of small-acreage landowners interested in growing trees and/or managing for wildlife on their property benefit as well. Many people are interested in managing their land in ways that benefit wildlife, but may lack the experience or expertise to develop a plan on their own. Working with the USDA-NRCS staff - often co-located in the same building - conservation districts can direct landowners to the technical assistance they need and make sure they have access to cost-sharing programs that support best practices for land management.

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