Relaunched Routt County conservation district looking for sustainable funding |

Relaunched Routt County conservation district looking for sustainable funding

Group hopes to become the first call for landowners on agriculture issues

Light falls through the clouds on a hay meadow just off of Routt County Road 46 Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

When the Routt County Conservation District Board worked to reconstitute in 2019, the budget was just a few thousand dollars, President Lyn Halliday said.

In order to change the district’s bylaws, Halliday explained that the group needed to get funding from the state to send out a mailer to inform local residents of changes considered. The dwindled three-person board didn’t even have enough members to hold an official vote.

“From that time until now, we’ve been able to bring in some outside funding,” Halliday said. “Some bits and pieces as we build and grow.”

Members of the district’s board met with Routt County Commissioners on Monday, Sept. 26, to see what support, if any, the county might be able to provide. Without sustainable funding, board member Cam Kuelthau said the funding opportunities tend to lead the way when it comes to the work the district does.

“It’s almost like grants determine where your programs go instead of you determining where they go,” Kuelthau said. “The search for sustainable funding is the single thing that we could do that would have the most impact on our ability to serve long term.”

The district had essentially disappeared before a new board was elected in 2019, and now Halliday said they hope to expand and become one of the go-to resources for local landowners, especially amid a decades-long drought brought on by a changing climate.

The conservation district works closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resource Conservation Service. Since 2019, they have signed up 25 local ranches to test the soil health in hopes of better informing land management decisions that could improve drought resiliency.

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The district was also one of five in the state to participate in a pilot program called Saving Tomorrow’s Agricultural Resources, which aims to get landowners to voluntarily test their soil, institute strategies to improve it and periodically see how those strategies are working.

Halliday said the district has been chosen to continue in an expanded version of the program that provides ranchers with funding to implement some of these strategies.

In October, the district hired a part-time manager to take on some of the duties that had become too much for the seven-member volunteer board. Halliday said they hope to extend that position to full-time and potentially add a district conservation technician to increase capacity.

“There are three basic entities that receive calls from landowners where there’s some agriculture or land related issue — (Routt County’s Colorado State University Extension Office), Community Agriculture Alliance and the conservation district,” said board member Kent Sandstedt. “We want to be that first top-of-mind call.”

But to do that, the district — one of 74 in Colorado — needs to find some source of sustainable funding, Halliday said.

There wasn’t a dollar amount attached to Monday’s ask and commissioners didn’t make any indication on whether they could provide funding, though they made it clear the county couldn’t be the source for sustainable funding in the future, as the county is “subject to the whims of the current board of county commissioners.”

Commissioner Tim Corrigan said he is sometimes frustrated because of what seems like a “scattershot process” with a plethora of groups  — he came up with 14 during the meeting —working on similar issues.

“How are we persuaded that all of this stuff ties together in some kind of rational way so that we’re not just, we’ll throw a few bucks here, we’ll throw a few bucks there and hope that something good comes from it?” Corrigan asked.

Commissioner Beth Melton said it is difficult to have a discussion about the county’s wiliness to provide any funding until a specific request has been presented. She encouraged Halliday to get the district’s numbers together, look at what support other districts get from counties and explain how a county contribution would add value to what other groups are already doing.

Melton said it would be nice to also see how any potential funding could be leveraged for more dollars elsewhere. Halliday said there are funding opportunities through the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act the district may be able to go after.

“I think we’ve come a long way in a few years, and we’re not going to stop here,” Halliday said.

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