Conservation districts begin considering new legislation
Lusk – As each of the conservation districts convenes for their area meetings, Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) Executive Director Bobbie Frank reported on legislative actions at the Area II meeting, held in Lusk on Sept. 12.
“There have been a number of conversations going on related to district law revision,” commented Frank, who mentioned that legislation that failed in 2005 has been revised and will be taken to the Joint Ag committee.
“In 2005, we undertook a fairly substantial effort to modify conservation district law,” explained Frank. “At that time the bill had two primary purposes.”
While one purpose of the bill looked to modify the statutory structure of conservation districts to make them eligible for Wyoming Water Development loan programs, the other focused on modernizing and more clearly reflecting the activities of conservation districts today.
“Conservation district statutes have not been substantially modified since 1987,” she said. “They are involved in a lot more diverse resource issues today.”
With conservation district statutes in need of an update, the 2005 bill easily passed the house, but died in committee in the Senate.
“There wasn’t much support in the former administration and the state for the legislation,” she continued, noting that attempts to reintroduce the legislation have come up several times in the last few years, but lack of support led the WACD board to forego pursuit of the bill until a change in political climate. “That is where it was left off.”
District law revision
Frank explained that a few changes will be made to update the 2005 legislation to reflect current concerns and draft legislation for special expertise.
The new bill will not seek authority for water development loans, as the Wyoming Water Development Commission prefers to work with irrigation districts, rather than watershed improvement districts or conservation districts, explains Frank.
“Our recommendation, based on water development’s position, is that if you want to do a project and you want to participate in water development’s loan program, go through the process and form an irrigation district,” she added, mentioning that the second goal of the bill – modernization – is still relevant.
“This bill is not as expansive as the 2005 bill,” Frank said. “This bill is going to be very narrowly focused on the special expertise issue.”
“Special expertise is a term used in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA),” explained Frank. “As a local government, you can participate in one of two ways.”
The special expertise issue was addressed for county commissioners in the passage of a bill in the 2011 session of the Wyoming Legislature. However, conservation districts still lack the designation.
First, groups must be recognized as a local government with the appropriate structure, and Frank added that conservation districts fit that requirement.
“Then, conservation districts can participate in federal planning either due to jurisdiction by law or special expertise,” she said. “The state of Wyoming has hereby blessed county commissioners to have special expertise in some areas as it pertains to federal land planning.”
“During the WACD work session, Larry Hicks, in his capacity as a district employee for the Little Snake River Conservation District, indicated his board’s desire to resurrect the district law modifications in part because of federal agencies denying participation in federal land activities due to a lack of special expertise.”
Both the Little Snake River Conservation District and the Teton Conservation District have been denied the opportunity to participate in federal land planning actions for that reason.
“The federal agency determines special expertise of a conservation district based on statutory language,” added Frank.
Following the legislative efforts last year with county commissioners, WACD President Shaun Sims was asks to present the issue to the newly formed Select Committee on Federal Natural Resource Management.
“Combined with his testimony, as well as the conversations between Senator Hicks and Senator Bebout, the committee directed the Legislative Service Office attorney to draft legislation,” Frank said. “The committee then voted to send the bill on to the Joint Ag Committee, and they will review this bill.”
The majority of conservation districts in the state have also agreed that they want to move forward with the legislation.
At the same time, Frank noted that Cheyenne attorney Karen Budd-Falen was asked to review the 2005 bill, as well as the draft legislation released.
Budd-Falen commented that she does feel there is validity to moving forward and strengthening statutes and provided some suggested amendments to the new bill.
The newly drafted bill, patterned after last year’s bill related to county commissioner’s special expertise, aims to grant conservation districts special expertise, without expanding their authorities.
Frank noted, however, that some concern has ben expressed by those who fear unexpected and unintended amendments that may come up in the legislative session.
“Some of the concern that was expressed, and it is a very valid concern, was if we open up the statute with legislation, it doesn’t mean that other amendments can’t come forward that we didn’t count on,” she explained. “We are very, very cautious when it comes to legislation.”
Frank said that there are several things that can be done to avoid unintended consequences of introducing legislation.
“Talk to your legislators,” she encouraged. “If you build a relationship with them, when ideas come out of left field in session, they are going to think about what you said and where you want to go with bills.”
Frank also mentioned that by developing contact with legislators, they may seek input during the sessions and will consider the thoughts of their constituents.
She added that some protection also comes in that amendments must be germane to the bill, so there are limited opportunities for unintended consequences of opening up statutes.
“We will have the opportunity to present the bill related to special expertise to the Joint Ag Committee, and offer up Karen’s suggested amendments, which we will do,” said Frank.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.