On Oct. 3, Tompkins County Soil & Water Conservation District Manager Jonathan Negley received a cursory email from a group known only as the “NYS Watershed Health Coalition” led by CCE Tompkins Policy & Funding Subcommittee Chair Megan Brosterman, who introduced fundamentally changing state soil and water conservation law with a 35-page “draft legislative bill” and highlighted amendments.

This action was foreshadowed by New York’s recent “Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act” (Senate Bill S4722A). It is an “act to amend the Agriculture and Markets law and the Soil and Water Conservation Districts law,” in relation to establishing the Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act.

Is soil health now disguised as a vehicle for changing the way local conservation districts operate, to circumvent the state’s AEM planning process and access new money for agendas not fully vetted? The draft amendment language suggests yes. The draft seems to mirror NOFA-NY’s overall playbook. (See nofany.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/NOFA-NY-Comments-on-Draft-Scoping-Plan-of-CLCPA-7.1.22.pdf.)

Titles in the draft want to change local Soil & Water Conservation Boards’ makeup as well as the State Soil & Water Conservation Committee by “weaving the environmental justice groundwork laid by the New York CLCPA [Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act] and the CAC’s Draft Scoping Plan more deeply into the Soil and Water Conservation Districts law and the Agriculture and Markets law through (a) greater representation at the SWCC and SWCDs and in stakeholder engagement and (b) prioritizing assistance to underserved farmers, ranchers and foresters and projects that benefit disadvantaged communities” (i.e., pitting farmers against farmers).

Amendments to the law put forth by Coalition representatives from Cornell University, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NOFA-NY, the New York State Watershed Resource Institute (NYSWRI) director, Scenic Hudson, Earth Justice, Hudson Carbon and the Columbia Climate School also want to carve out funding from New York’s Environmental Protection Fund used by local districts to implement water quality projects through the voluntary AEM (Agriculture Environmental Management) planning framework “by proposing a funding mechanism for soil and watershed health initiatives as either a newly created fund or earmarked funds” and “an establishment of a payment for ecosystems services pilot.”

Coalition member Steven Keleti, who has emerged as a state soil health policy specialist for Northeast NOFA chapters and curator of the U.S. State Soil Health Policy Map (healthysoilspolicy.org), talked a dangerous game in a “Policies, Practices and Economics of Healthy Soils” presentation for NOFA-NH (see youtube.com/watch?v=TsbK847k-wc) when he said he practices “education through legislation” in getting initiatives passed in Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and – maybe – New York.

Transparency hasn’t been the Coalition’s strong suit, nor has the fact that the cadre of powerful state partners are initiating a systematic takeover of conservation, environmental and Ag and Markets law. Negley was caught off guard, saying, “I have just learned of this, and am not aware of any statewide review of this draft legislation by Soil and Water Districts, nor do I know who may be the sponsor of this legislation. There seems to be closed door meetings to draft this by CCE and partners and then review at the 11th hour by SWCDs.” Since the draft was made public, there has been an uptick from local Extension offices inquiring about the makeup of district boards and how they are chosen.

Lawyer, Soil Health Policy Advocate and CCE Tompkins team member Brosterman offered the Coalition’s perspective: “A broad coalition of farming and conservation groups has been involved in drafting a healthy watersheds legislative proposal, including some of the groups that were part of the New York Healthy Soils legislation that passed in 2021. The referenced working draft document is a placeholder for discussions and does not represent any agreed Coalition positions at this stage. The Coalition seeks to build wide-ranging support from stakeholders in the farming and conservation communities, and welcomes input from all members of these communities to strengthen the draft to better meet its intent.

“The overarching goals that have brought these groups together have been to better facilitate the collaboration and funding of Soil and Water Conservation Districts on watershed health, to ensure state and federal funding for climate resiliency initiating from the … CLCPA and otherwise can be allocated to the conservation districts for climate resilient farming and forestry, including soil and watershed health initiatives, and to address farming justice implications of the CLCPA and Draft Scoping Plan to strengthen and support New York’s farming community in a holistic manner that does not alienate any of its members.

“It will be necessary to retain continued strong support from the farming community currently involved at the county level, and to build additional support for Soil and Water Conservation Districts from parts of the farming and watershed communities not currently involved,” concluded Brosterman.

The draft has created a firestorm statewide throughout local conservation districts, boards, the NYS Soil & Water Conservation Committee, Ag & Markets, the NY Association of Conservation Districts, the Conservation District Employees Association, NY Farm Bureau and county supervisors.

“The idea that such sweeping, unnecessary changes are being proposed to district law is frightening, especially when these proposed changes will likely benefit the people involved in drafting it,” said NY CDEA President Dustin Lewis. His concerns center around increasing the SWCC Board to seven members. Of those seven, only two would remain as they currently are: the Farm Bureau member and the New York Association of Conservation Districts member. The Grange voting member would be replaced with a NOFA-NY member and there’s the possibility of moving from two appointed County Legislature representatives on SWCD boards to an open election.

Lewis added, “Districts across the state are already working with a wide array of farmers and landowners, and most Watershed Coalitions were established by and include members of SWCDs. In my opinion, the suggestions being made by the Watershed Health Coalition are already being done by districts, excluding the Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES). The changes being proposed to district law would limit the ability of New York State’s SWCDs to implement conservation practices and serve farmers and landowners.”

At a recent meeting of the NYACD, a resolution was ratified to notify the NYS Conservation District Employees’ Association Inc. and NYACD representatives for any proposed amendments to NYS SWCD law.

Farm Bureau Region 4 Manager Mark James wrote to members, “The proposed changes to the Soil & Water Conservation District Law would marginalize our districts and empower environmental groups and lake associations … The Yates County Farm Bureau passed the following resolution to forward on to the resolutions committee: ‘We support continuing the current membership on Soil & Water Conservation Boards of Directors, as defined in state statute, and continued funding from the NYS Environmental Protection fund at current or increased levels to the districts.’”

“There are some serious concerns that we are reviewing in the draft legislation that would negatively affect farmers across the state, including a proposed fertilizer tax and removing key Farm Bureau expertise from the Soil and Water Boards,” said Steve Ammerman, NYFB director of communications.

To read the proposed draft legislative changes to the law and make your own determination, contact your local NYS SWCD office or NYFB representative.

by Troy Bishopp