At the recent annual meeting of the National Association of Conservation Districts in New Orleans, keynote speakers included the expected –USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and NRCS Chief Terry Cosby – as well as someone a little outside the box.

Speaking at the meeting was U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams, who began by saying, “Our mission starts with working with others – we get things done only through our partnerships. I believe that wildlife conservation is a shared responsibility. We must find ways to work collaboratively, particularly with stewards of private and Tribal lands.”

She continued that the connection to working landscapes are critical to all ecosystem functions. It can’t just be pockets of sanctuaries that are protected.

Williams believes that nature is essential to the health, well-being and prosperity of all Americans. “We know too that we’re facing unprecedented challenges at local, state, Tribal and federal wildlife and conservation agencies,” she said. “Invasive species, wildfires and habitat fragmentation … are no longer things we can afford to ignore. While these challenges may be daunting, I also truly believe that there has never been a time of better opportunity to address these challenges if we work together.”

To help all these different organizations work together, Williams touted some new tools available to Americans. The first was the launch of the America the Beautiful initiative – an executive order tackling the climate crisis. The Department of the Interior partnered with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, NOAA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of Defense to develop recommendations on how to advance an inclusive and collaborative conservation vision.

The Biden Administration also launched a report called America the Beautiful with the purpose to conserve, connect and restore the lands and waters around on which all Americans depend. It was first released in May 2021. “A notable piece of this acknowledges and celebrates the voluntary conservation efforts of working lands owners,” Williams noted.

America the Beautiful pursues a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation. It supports locally designed and led efforts. It pursues conservation approaches that create jobs and respects the rights of private property. It’s about working with communities to identify what conservation approaches, programs and projects work best for each community.

“The America the Beautiful Challenge focuses on large-scale projects that span public and private lands,” Williams explained. Its original commitment totaled $440 million in federal resources over five years; the first round of grants announced in November 2022 totaled nearly $91 million, which was leveraged with an additional $50 million in matching contributions.

Martha Williams of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The next tool in the toolkit was the Infrastructure Bill, which set aside $91 million in annual funding for FWS programs over five years. This funding will help address intensifying droughts, wildfires and flooding as well as stewardship contracts, ecosystem restoration projects, invasive species detection and prevention and increasing the supply of native seeds and plants essential for habitat restoration efforts.

The other important tool she talked about was the Inflation Reduction Act. Signed into law in August 2022, it provided the Department of Interior (of which FWS is a bureau) with $500 million for land resilience, conservation and habitat restoration activities.

Williams was also pleased to announce the FWS just signed new Memorandum of Understanding with the NACD to continue and strengthen their partnership.

“Conservation works best if local communities are engaged and take the lead,” she said. “People support that which they help build.”

Matching Audio to Video

The keynote address from USDA-NRCS Chief Terry Cosby was short and sweet.

“We’ve been doing this for almost 90 years,” he said of NRCS’s work. “We started as the Soil Erosion Service and evolved to cover all conservation. We started with the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, and our focus is on climate change now.”

Terry Cosby of the USDA-NRCS. Photos by Courtney Llewellyn

Cosby stressed that conservation has to be in the conversation. As a science-based agency, NRCS doesn’t do “random acts of conservation.” They do conservation planning. And they need planners out in the field working with landowners – as 70% of American land is in private ownership.

“We need to give farmers credit for the work they’re already doing,” he stressed. “That’s gonna be really important as we move forward.”

As a voluntary, not regulatory, agency, Cosby laid out five priorities for the service: diversity, climate change, urban agriculture, workforce development and partnerships. “They’re all important and we’re gonna need all of you to achieve this,” he said.

He added, “Our audio has to be the same as our video. We can’t say one thing and do something else.”

Cosby concluded his oration by noting that with the massive amounts of federal funding being directed to conservation, landowners are being given a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to make a difference.

“We’re receiving the biggest investment in conservation ever. We can get this done,” he stated.

by Courtney Llewellyn