The Importance of a Local Conservation Commission
The business of town government is a complex web of competing priorities. Always challenged by too little money, too little time and too few staff, municipalities depend heavily on dedicated citizen volunteers to identify new opportunities and new ways of tackling tough issues. Without local champions able to successfully navigate town office operations and local politics, habitat and open space protection rarely rise to the level of being high municipal priorities. Conservation Commissions can fill this role as an appointed body serving under elected officials, and as a publicly approachable body dedicated to local natural resource concerns.
No other entity at the local level can focus as significant an amount of time to balancing conservation with a town's future growth vision than can a Conservation Commission. Planning Boards are typically overwhelmed with applications and have little time to actually plan for their community's future outside of the case-by-case, lot by lot structure provided through the typical development review process. Selectmen are often too busy balancing constituent concerns over rising property taxes with school and emergency service personnel concerns and the rising costs of providing citizen required services. As a result, these elected officials rarely have the time to take up conservation related issues, and when they do, they are often criticized for not concentrating on issues perceived as being of more immediate priority. Paid town staff, often limited in rural towns to the positions of town administrator, clerk, codes enforcement officer, assessor and tax collector, typically do not have the time or the technical expertise to implement additional habitat protections either.
In addition, towns should not rely on their local land trust to maintain municipal habitat functions through their land protection efforts. While they are tremendous partners, local land trusts often opt to function outside of the universe of local politics, ordinances, and town planning documents. Land trust priorities are typically reflective of their board members and contributors and may not fully mirror the conservation or open space needs of the community. Besides, fee acquisition of land is only one piece of the local habitat conservation puzzle. There will never be adequate private funds available to purchase all the land necessary to maintain long-term habitat functions and public outdoor recreation opportunities.
Conservation Commissions serve as the vital link to help translate Beginning with Habitat (BwH) information into the local government structure and to help oversee its implementation. Conservation Commissions function as the natural resource planning body in town and act in a consulting role to town staff, elected officials, and other local committees. Conservation Commissions also often act in the capacity of town representative to local land trusts. Typical major roles played by Conservation Commissions include:
- Assisting with the town Comprehensive Plan Natural Resource Inventory, and related implementation strategies
- Assisting with, or leading, the development of a local Open Space Plan
- Providing comments to the Planning Board regarding proposed open space to be allocated in conservation or open space subdivisions
- Working with elected officials and the Planning Board to craft and/or review proposed land use ordinance tools to better protect local natural resources
- Partnering with local land trusts on habitat acquisition projects and strategic conservation plans
- Applying for state and federal grants to offset costs associated with local studies, or land acquisition / management projects (see Funding Opportunities)
- Managing town conservation lands and developing public access amenities such as trails, kiosks, and parking areas
- Conducting field surveys to add local knowledge to BwH map sets and data
- Developing public education and outreach materials to foster greater awareness of locally significant resources
The Maine Association of Conservation Commissions (MEACC) (www.meacc.net) is the best place to start if your town is considering creating a local Conservation Commission. The MEACC web-site includes links to 'The Maine Manual for Conservation Commissions' that describes in detail everything from the statutory authority behind local Conservation Commissions to how to run effective meetings and develop annual budgets. MEACC provides a useful service enabling Conservation Commissions to learn from one another, share success stories, and view the latest Conservation Commission news and upcoming events.
How to Increase Your Commission's Effectiveness
If your town already has a Conservation Commission established, but the Commission is currently inactive or unsure of its role, Beginning with Habitat (BwH) can serve as a good vehicle to re-invigorate or inspire local conservation actions.
- Has your town sponsored a BwH presentation? Maybe it has been a while, or there are new faces on local boards and committees who could benefit from another presentation? Besides our standard introductory presentation, BwH is also willing to develop presentations tailored to local needs and current issues in your town.
- Has your Conservation Commission reviewed the natural resource or land use implementation strategies as outlined in your local Comprehensive Plan? These strategies represent publicly agreed upon next steps for your town and provide guidance for local actions. Let your selectmen know if your commission is willing to take on priority actions not yet addressed.
- Meet with your codes enforcement officer, planning board and town planner. Are there issues that come up repeatedly during development review? Can your Commission help craft new approaches that may clarify or enhance local resource protections?
- Review the BwH maps for your town. How are the key resources (riparian zones, important plant and animal habitats, and undeveloped blocks) protected? Are there features such as certain habitat types or rare species occurrences that receive no local protections? Are there opportunities to implement additional or enhance existing ordinance tools to better protect these features?
- Does your Commission have a map of protected lands in town? Does this map include trails or highlight public access opportunities? Do these lands require any management such as invasive species control?
- Has your Commission met with the local or regional land trust? What are their priorities? Are there opportunities to partner on projects?
- How well informed are your local citizens regarding water quality protection, rare species conservation, invasive plant control, and options to protect and manage their land for habitat purposes?
BwH can offer guidance for your Commission on any number of the potential items listed above. If we cannot provide direct assistance, we can help your Commission navigate the variety of conservation opportunities and organizations in the state to locate the information you need. The Maine Association of Conservation Commissions (www.meacc.net) also offers an invaluable opportunity to network with other commissions throughout the state.