North Dakota Forest Service and conservation districts partner on many projects

Several years ago, North Dakota Conservation District Employees Association President Lori Frank was asked by the North Dakota Forest Service if the state’s districts might assist with a wildfire grant project. Before having a chance to consider the opportunity the Bucyrus Fire struck Barnes County. Local residents – some of them Frank’s friends – had less than 20 minutes to gather whatever possessions they could from their homes.

“It was bizarre,” recalls Frank. “Here we were talking about the potential threats of fire and then suddenly this area was fighting one. It was a scary experience.”

The grant helped Frank and other district employees prepare North Dakota homeowners for how to respond if another fire hit – how to best use those precious 20 minutes. More important, the grant opened the door to what has become a strong partnership between the state’s soil conservation districts and the North Dakota Forest Service.

Frank’s home district of Barnes County is just one example for where state forestry has found a willing, active partner in soil conservation districts.

Through the Barnes Country Wildfire Protection Project, the Barnes County Soil Conservation District (SCD) helps to identify wildfire issues of high priority. These priorities included: reducing fuel loads, improving fire prevention in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), prevention education, and direct outreach to rural landowners at risk.

Through the three-year grant, awarded in 2013, Barnes County SCD has been able to provide cost-share opportunities to landowners for creating defensible space around homes and structures, provide Firewise assessments, develop Forest Resource Management Plans focused on guiding the successful establishment of young fuelbreaks, and update the Barnes County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The project has also helped Barnes County SCD share information with the communities of Hastings, Kathryn, Litchville, Sanborn, Valley City and areas surrounding Lake Ashtabula and Bald Hill Dam.

Barnes County SCD has also worked closely with the North Dakota Forest Service for the annual Eco Ed, an event to help area fifth, sixth and seventh graders learn about natural resources. The event is a primer for Envirothon made possible through an EPA section 319 grant. State forestry officials teach students about tree health, identifying tree species, and the benefits trees offer local communities.

North Dakota Forest Service and the state’s soil conservation districts have partnered on a number of other projects in recent years. “Our soil conservation districts are highly valued partners,” says North Dakota State Forester Larry Kotchman. “We appreciate their collaboration and support for conservation and forestry programs and their ability to help reach forest landowners.”

Other projects include:

• The Windbreak Renovation Initiative is a $1.8 million grant ($3.6 million project) provided to the North Dakota Forest Service by the North Dakota Industrial Commission through the Outdoor Heritage Fund. The project serves to ensure that windbreaks remain a part of North Dakota’s conservation heritage and viable part of the agricultural landscape; reduce the number of windbreaks destroyed by offering incentives to replace dead/deteriorating windbreaks; incorporate species diversity and select species most suitable for the site to mitigate future losses due to abiotic factors or insect and disease issues; provide technical and financial assistance to landowners to help achieve their conservation goals; and administer a simple, effective, statewide cost-share program that leverages landowner’s match with a source of grant funds for a variety of windbreak renovation practices. The North Dakota Conservation District Employees Association, in partnership with the North Dakota Forest Service and North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts, were successful in helping to secure program funding.

• The Trees Awards recognize individuals, organizations and agencies who contribute in an outstanding way to forestry activities. These activities can include: fire mitigation, protection and suppression; tree planting, preservation, or maintenance; community forestry efforts; forest management practices; forest recreation; or environmental education. In 2015, the state celebrated the 25th Trees Bowl anniversary. Looking back on 25 years of Trees Bowls, 353 Trees Awards have been presented to award winners, nearly 350,000 fans have attended the games, and 66,200 trees have been handed out to fans. Soil conservation districts nominate Conservation Achievement Award Winners. The North Dakota Conservation District Employees Association was recognized in 2014.

• For the past 15 years, the North Dakota Forest Service has partnered with soil conservation districts to host an annual Tree Promotion Meeting. The meeting serves to promote, expand and improve conservation tree planting throughout the state and promote new concepts including climate change, design and planting specifications, tree species selection and other programs.

• The FY09 North Dakota Conservation Forestry Initiative State and Private Forestry competitive grant helped local, state, federal, tribal and private conservation leaders on North Dakota’s State Technical Committee advance a forestry initiative to create more opportunities for working lands as intended by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill. The State Conservationist designated 3.5 percent of EQIP funding for windbreak renovation, woodland improvement and Firewise projects. EQIP stewardship activities have been expanded to include forest management on nonindustrial private forest lands, as well as lands on which forest-related products are produced. The Natural Resource Conservation Service administers the EQIP forestry initiative through the network of county USDA Service Centers with assistance from soil conservation districts and the North Dakota Forest Service. This initiative strengthened coordinated interagency delivery of forestry-related conservation assistance as outlined in a new national MOU signed by conservation leaders.

• The FY11 Cooperative Conservation Assistance State and Private Forestry competitive grant was a capacity building effort focused on protecting and managing priority forest landscapes. The project increased landowner participation in two EQIP projects involving riparian forest restoration and windbreak renovation. Cooperative Conservation Assistance supported education and outreach efforts increased soil conservation district capacity to assist landowners with comprehensive management planning, and targeted high priority windbreak renovation and riparian forest restoration needs.