Conservation District Supervisors


What is the Role of a Conservation District Supervisor?

It's more than just attending meetings and approving official district business. Across 14 conservation districts in West Virginia, supervisors may play a variety of roles. Each supervisor may take on unique responsibilities, as well. Some get active in student-centered education programs. Others take on a leadership role in the statewide association of conservation districts or an administrative role in their local district. Ultimately, a supervisor is responsible for practices and programs that will conserve the soil, water, land and related natural resources within their district.

This Q&A includes interviews with current and former supervisors about their role and much of what the job entails.

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How do you Become a Supervisor?

Conservation district supervisors are elected during the May primary, which is held on the second Tuesday in May during election years. Once elected, a supervisor serves a four-year term. Residents of a candidate's county vote for at least two supervisors who live in the county. (Due to population levels, Berkeley County has three supervisors and Kanawha County has five.) Supervisors are non-partisan candidates, so they do not go on to run in the November general election.

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Who is Eligible to become a Supervisor?

A person can run for Conservation Supervisor who resides within the county where he or she is running for office and who has experience in agriculture, conservation, or natural resources and has a strong working interest in the conservation of natural resources.
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What are some of the Responsibilities of a Supervisor?

Several responsibilities will be discussed here and others further down in the Q&A:
  • Be actively involved in the financial management of the district and its budget
  • Through their districts, develop comprehensive plans for: the conservation of soil and soil resources; the control and prevention of soil erosion and flooding; and the conservation, development, use and disposal of water within the district
  • Represent the district at local public meetings regarding conservation of soil, water and other natural resources, and actively promote conservation programs in the community
  • Similarly, be available to speak at schools, workshops, field days and other functions
  • Participate in poster contests, camps and competitions for students, as well as photo contests for the public, to help share the conservation message
  • Hire and oversee a work crew (in some districts) to help with conservation practices on farms, like spreading lime or building a fence
  • Attend 12 regularly scheduled board meetings annually, as well as district committee meetings
  • Approve agricultural enhancement applications, in which local farmers (cooperators) agree to voluntary conservation practices on their land
  • Effectively work with state legislators to promote local conservation of natural resources
  • Award contracts for work on dam construction and other projects within the district
  • Serve on related local boards that develop and implement programs to protect and conserve water, woodlands, wildlife and other renewable natural resources
  • Work with partners like the West Virginia Conservation Agency and the federal USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service when necessary
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What is the Time Requirement?

Supervisors must attend the 12 regularly scheduled monthly board meetings, as well as committee meetings, training and other specially called meetings and functions for an average of 60 days per year. But as Monongahela Conservation District (MCD) Supervisor Jean Conley said, many supervisors spend much more than 60 days per year on the job. Some get involved in the West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts, or state or national committees. Others sit on the related local boards noted above and contribute more of their own time.

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Do Individual Supervisors take on Different Roles based on their Interests?

They do, several supervisors said.

One of the top priorities for Wayne McKeever, a supervisor with the Upper Ohio Conservation District, is providing education about conservation issues. For one, McKeever is chairman of the West Virginia Envirothon Committee, which is an annual competition for high school students.

Shirley Hyre, a current supervisor in the Elk Conservation District and a former conservation district manager, said unique experiences and interests among supervisors improve the district "because each individual contributes what they have and makes the group stronger."

"Their interests are strung from pillar to post and back again," Jean Conley said of supervisors. Areas of interest abound within the districts.

Those include agricultural enhancement practices, watershed maintenance, development within the district and, in some areas, protection of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Figgatt explained how diversity of backgrounds in supervisors is helpful.

"Our district has had the benefit of an attorney serving on the board who can understand and assist us with contracts, state code, policy and ethics opinions," she said. "Supervisors who are retired or actively farming are able to bring the needs of the production farms to the board and also to reach out to the farming community in avenues others may not to spread the word about [agricultural enhancement] programs and cost-share funding."

Clyde Bailey, a supervisor in the Capitol Conservation District, enjoys taking the knowledge he's gained over the years -- through experiences, conferences and other people -- and sharing it.

Bailey, who is particularly interested in grazing and grasslands, has learned that planting the right forage grasses can help pollinators, which benefits both beekeepers and cattle farmers. "It's a good thing," he said.

"Some supervisors prefer to work with the public and serve in more of an 'outreach' role while others prefer to take on an administrative role," Figgatt said. "Both are equally important to the districts."

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What Do Supervisors Believe is their Most Important Responsibility?

Saving the soil, conserving natural resources and saving farming before it disappears is a supervisor's main objective, Wayne McKeever said.

Aimee Figgatt said the most important responsibility of a board of supervisors is the fiscal management of public funds.

"Decisions on program funding should be made with careful thought, without special interests, to serve and benefit the community as a whole," she said.

Shirley Hyre said a primary responsibility for a supervisor is informing the public about what's available to them in the conservation district, by way of programs, events and more. "We've been referred to at different times as the best-kept secret," she said.

Lin Dunham's most important responsibility as a supervisor is "being honest and realistic on District workload decisions" and "being honest with everyone with whom you come in contact." He is the board president for the Eastern Panhandle Conservation District.

Timothy VanReenen sees the responsibility two-fold: Supervisors need to get the word out about what a district does for people in the community, such as its actions when responding to a flood event, or, on the agricultural side, what programs are available. Supervisors also should help their districts move forward and make sure they are being progressive. VanReenen is a supervisor with the Greenbrier Valley Conservation District and president of the West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts.

Dunham said that supervisors should be open to new ideas from young people.

It's important to be faithful and available to the position, as well as teachable so you're willing to pick up new information, Clyde Bailey said.

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What is the Role of the West Virginia Association of Conservation Districts in Helping Supervisors Achieve their Goals?

The Association, which acts as a representative body for the districts, provides a unified venue for supervisors to share ideas and concerns and accomplish their conservation goals at the state level, Shirley Hyre said. It also provides districts with an opportunity to reach agreement about the big picture, she said.

"It gives all the districts a more unified voice on issues that we have in common," Timothy VanReenen said.

For example, the Association had helped the districts with an issue of getting soil samples -- needed for agricultural enhancement programs -- returned in a timely fashion, he said.

Supervisors benefit from the expertise of people in other districts, Conley said. In addition to the Association, conservation districts work with the U.S. Forest Service, Trout Unlimited and other organizations and agencies, she said. That gives supervisors a host of resources to call upon.

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What does the Future Hold for Conservation District Supervisors?

A variety of opinions exist about future roles, but there is a great deal of interest in getting young people to take an active role in conservation issues.

"How do we entice the young to get involved?" Lin Dunham said. "When we do finally get some younger people involved we have to encourage them, show that they are important to the District."

Dunham suggested that a portion of new supervisors could be residents with a conservation-related background or position, such as a teacher or professor in a conservation field or a member of a watershed protection group.

Under this scenario, active and retired farmers would still maintain a strong presence in districts.

"Districts made up of more than one county could have one county supervisor position be a non-farmer conservation-related supervisor [per county]," Dunham said. "Therefore, a county with two elected positions could be specified in the bylaws as Farmer Supervisor and Conservation-Related Supervisor.

Timothy VanReenen agreed that if changes were made to state law, at least 50 percent of supervisors should have the agriculture background "so that we don't lose that identity that we have," which is a concern he's heard from others.

Shirley Hyre noted that stewardship of the land and natural resources is the basis of conservation, which is something a farmer knows well. A strong agricultural background - farming, education, or training - should be required for a supervisor, she said. The focus of conservation, she said, now also includes development, planning and other areas. Hyre believes it's important for supervisors to be landowners, because that gives a person a sense of ownership to the land.

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