The 2010 Outreach/Research Partner of the Year is grounded at the grassroots level but its efforts finesse landscapes state wide.
They're also pleased to receive the honor.
"Our board members are very excited and appreciative," says Bobbie Frank, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD).
"It's a huge honor," says Shaun Sims in Uinta County, vice president of the association.
WACD's relationship with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources spans decades. Over just the past eight years, total grants and program support from the WACD is more than $390,000.
A focus has been water quality and watershed management and education of producers and land managers. The influx of small-acreage property owners, federal mandates, and energy development has expanded districts' emphasis over the past two decades.
Thirty-four conservation districts are represented by the WACD. Each is overseen by an elected five-member board of supervisors. On each board are three rural members, one urban member, and one at-large member.
The local focus is vital.
"We are local people elected to the board," says Sims, who raises cattle and sheep in Uinta County with his father, Mike, and brother, Steve.
"Our constituents are our neighbor farmers and ranchers who elected us. We are volunteer-based, grassroots, and listen to our constituents," he says. "A lot of it comes from visiting with our neighbors and, if there is an issue out there, we bring it to the board meetings. On occasion, our neighbors bring issues to the meetings."
Legislative approval in 1987 allowing tax levies to fund conservation districts transformed the districts. The move allowed districts to "evolve their programs to be bigger, broader, stronger, and more reflective of the priorities in their communities," says Frank, who began as executive director in 1991.
The growth of districts and issues being confronted expanded the districts' involvement with the university, and that relationship was strengthened through water quality and watershed management efforts.
In the late 1990s, Wyoming was trying to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act by assessing streams in the state and identifying those with pollution problems.
"At the time, we had minimum resources," Frank says. "They did what they could with what they had. A lot of the data gathered was pretty subjective, based on opinion rather than data."
To bolster the quality of the work, the association proposed a water monitoring program that created a network with the Department of Environmental Quality and the University of Wyoming.
"The university was pivotal because they helped us develop the entire training program," notes Frank. "That's when we started having the university deliver all the modules of water quality training, including what we called the watershed 101 course. That continues today with (Associate Professor) Ginger Paige and the staff continuing to deliver that."
Another college award recipient this year, Professor Emeritus Quentin Skinner, was integral to the effort.
"It was exciting," she says. "You could go to Dr. Skinner's course and you could just see the people in that class walk out almost like a changed person for having heard him. Things kind of made sense after you left in terms of what was going on in our watersheds and how you look at our watersheds. He went from people standing out looking at a spot in the ground to looking at the whole landscape and thinking about what all could be going on in that landscape to cause that spot to look the way it does."
Skinner provided the momentum for the program. The relationship continued to develop between WACD and the college, even to using graduate students to conduct research.
Frank says the relationship has been excellent and adds there has been "enormous, positive change" to the landscape of Wyoming.
"The university on its own has extension, the outreach," she says. "That's integral because it takes the knowledge base and the research of the university and gets it out in the country where it can be applied and used rather than in a library somewhere."
When that is added to the network of 34 districts with locally elected leaders, many in the agricultural sector, "you get all those people on the same page at the same time headed in the same direction," she says.>
"From talking to my counterparts in other areas of the country, what we are doing in this state for water quality and watershed work is extraordinarily unique. Not because other states aren't doing water quality and watershed work, it's how we're doing that and that relationship we have amongst all the partners, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as our federal partners."
Sims has been a supervisor with the Uinta County Conservation District since 2001. He says he became involved with conservation districts because he could see the good things that could be done "and keep our resources healthy and improve what needs to be improved and help ranchers be more efficient through partnerships with the NRCS."
The partnerships include irrigation management, and tree and water quality programs.
His district now wrestles with other issues. People moved out into the county during the oil boom in the 1980s, which taxed roads and other infrastructure. Large ranches, some struggling, sold land, which became rural subdivisions.
"Once the boom died, there were a lot of industrial parks in the county, which changed our focus," he says. "We have a lot more small-acreage workshops, education about resource management, and more confined grazing."
Another recent influx has people buying small acreages created from several ranches.
"We have people from Salt Late coming to buy their dream and putting an impact on the county from a change in values, uses, and some folks looking for investments," notes Sims. "Some have bought their trophy ranch, which is changing the aspect of rural life."
He says such changes are happening across Wyoming.
Sims foresees future government regulations steering conservation district activities.
"We'll do our best to respond to those," he says. "Using a crystal ball to look into the future, I think we will be faced with smaller ranches, a lot of small-acreage issues and, with energy development and a rush to wind farm development, we will have an opportunity to help landowners and help power companies, if they so desire, to address resource concerns."