APACHE COUNTY — For 30 years, Daric Knight has been keeping an eye on conservation in Apache County.
Knight, the chair of the Apache Natural Resource Conservation District board, works to pair landowners with resources to address conservation needs on private lands and ranches.
“Our five-member board is 100 percent about conservation,” Knight said. He and the other board members are unpaid volunteers.
Recently, the Apache Natural Resource Conservation District has become a key partner in a major regional conservation initiative.
Alphabet soup of agencies
Knight knows that his organization — the NRCD — works somewhat under the radar for most of the public. And he is more than familiar with the alphabet-soup of state and federal agencies that work on conservation issues in Arizona, because he works side-by-side with them on many projects.
In an interview, he mapped out the landscape of agencies that are often confused with NRCD:
“The NRCS — the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the RCD — Resource Conservation and Development, they’re out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We’re based out of State Lands,” he said.
However, the NRCD works closely with these other agencies.
“It’s a real tight partnership. We help them with conservation projects,” Knight said.
In Arizona, conservation districts are operated on a county level by a board of directors made up of local landowners – two appointed by the Governor and three are elected. The districts are local units of government that have broad authority to “provide for the restoration of lands, water, wildlife and other natural resources ...” as defined by the Arizona Association of Conservation Districts. Apache NRCD receives $15,000 from the state annually as operating funds.
The NRCS, NRCD and RCD are all the grandchildren of the Soil Conservation Service, an agency launched after the devastating dust storms of the 1930s, when poor agricultural practices on private lands in the West led to the loss of hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil.
The real business of the NRCD is the job of getting federal and state dollars and assistance into local areas to solve conservation problems on the ground for landowners and ranchers. Problems like gully erosion and stream-bank stabilization that contribute to topsoil loss and muddy streams.
“We have that trust that people may not have with the federal government,” he said.
project by project
Knight said for many years, his board focused on the Coyote Creek watershed in southern Apache County, working to solve erosion problems on the stream, which is a tributary of the Little Colorado River.
“Our District originally started working on the Coyote Creek watershed in the early ‘80s with a special appropriation from the legislature. Since that time, there has been well over a million dollars spent on conservation projects throughout the Coyote Creek watershed. The conservation work accomplished has had a direct effect on the water quality in the Little Colorado River and the sediment-load into Lyman Lake. There are projects on going in the Coyote Creek watershed still today, and Coyote Creek continues to be a priority watershed for conservation work in the Apache NRCD,” Knight said in an email.
The beginnings of
In the early 2000s, the Apache NRCD completed a high-profile conservation project on the banks of the Little Colorado River on the edge of Springerville. The project re-routed the stream back to its original floodplain, stabilized the banks and provided for wildlife habitat. Beavers have since moved into the river, adding their own engineering to the floodplain, and the river corridor also attracts migratory birds, waterfowl, mule deer and other wildlife. The project also included a trail alongside the stream that is a popular spot with locals.
“The project was intended to act as a demonstration for other landowners to show what kind of conservation work they could do ... to address soil erosion problems along waterways. During the project, the Arizona Game and Fish acquired the property and partnered with the Apache NRCD to allow us to finish the project, and they established the walking trail,” Knight said.
Knight says that cooperation with other agencies, such as what occurred AZGF in Springerville, is becoming the norm thanks to growing concerns about increasing the pace and impact of natural resource restoration efforts across the state.
Two years ago, these somewhat informal project-based partnerships led to the formation of the Arizona Conservation Partnership (ACP), a coalition of the state’s 42 Natural Resource Conservation Districts and 10 state and federal agencies. The partnership allows agencies to pool their funds and take on bigger projects, but they needed local connections to get started.
“The NRCDs are uniquely suited to act as lead agencies because they are made up of local, grassroots individuals. NRCDs, because of their ... makeup have a much greater level of trust and confidence throughout the community for engagement in different conservation programs with the government agencies,” Knight said.
Last year, the partnership completed its first-ever conservation and restoration project in the state; lands in Navajo and Apache counties were prioritized for this initial partnership effort which focused on the removal of invasive juniper. Nearly 4,000 acres of juniper was cleared, and over 2,500 acres of thinning is currently underway, according to the Bureau of Land Management, one of the primary partners in this project.
While much of the work has occurred in Navajo County (with the guidance of Navajo County NRCD) so far, preparatory surveys for Native American archaeological sites were completed on thousands of acres in Apache County, and those acres are now ready for juniper treatment.
Removing juniper allows the land to return to grasslands – its natural, historic state, conservation experts say, and helps conserve the groundwater and runoff that was used by the trees.
Overall, the project has put in place conservation plans for 42,551 acres in both counties, with a combined budget of $1.5 million from several state and federal sources, plus private funding. The conservation activities are occurring on what is called a “landscape scale” – across ownership boundaries on federal, state and private land.
The NRCDs worked with private landowners to move the project forward, Knight said. Thousands of acres of ranch land are included in the two-county project, and producers added a total of $428,000 of funding or in-kind assistance to the conservation efforts.
“(We’re) responsible for gathering together the potential ranchers or producers to apply the different conservation projects to lands under their control. In this case, pinion and juniper control was the main project undertaken. The producers on those lands really have a major impact on the management of those lands whether they are leased or owned by the producer. It is the charge of the NRCDs to engage the producers, regardless of land jurisdiction, and work with them in applying the conservation effort to the land,” he explained.
The partnership, Knight believes is having an important, positive impact on overall conservation outlook for the area.
“As chairman of the Apache NRCD, I believe that through our engagement in the Arizona Conservation Partnership, we have been able to address conservation in our District on a landscape-level rather than just smaller projects scattered throughout our District,” he said.
“We have been able to bring several million dollars of conservation work directly to the lands in our area. This has a direct effect on the health of our range lands and the quality and quantity of water in the Little Colorado River Watershed,” he added.