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Is Utah's agricultural conservation a bust?

Published June 24, 2014 7:28 pm

Legislative audit • Auditors say state's conservation districts need better guidance and funding.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Legislative auditors have found the state and its private-sector partner are doing an inadequate job overseeing conservation efforts on Utah's agricultural lands.

In a report released Tuesday, the legislative auditor general claims the Utah Association of Conservation Districts (UACD) should find alternative funding sources outside its small state grant, spend the money it does have rather than pad its cash reserves and do more to build up the capacity of the state's 38 conservation districts.

Auditors also said the Utah Conservation Commission (UCC), an arm of the Utah Department of Agriculture, is not fulfilling its mission of guiding the conservation districts, most of which are underfunded almost to the point of irrelevance.

In its formal response, the UACD disputed most of the auditors' criticisms. Money it retains year over year comes from fees associated with a loan program, which is allowed to accumulate, and is used for future projects when state and federal sources are not sufficient to fund them. Officials rejected auditors' conclusion that the association is not providing service in a "cost-effective" way."As an outsourced service provider UACD has had the ability to operate with less bureaucracy and more responsiveness to the CDs [conservation districts] than if administrative functions were filled by a state agency," association president Wendell Stembridge wrote. "UACD and CD employees have done a good job in getting projects ready, preparing plans and connecting cost-share programs to local people that benefit Utah's land and water resources. On-ground improvements have increased farm productivity, saved water, etc."

Stembridge pointed to projects undertaken in 2013. Soil quality was improved on 23,372 acres and water quality on 150,739 acres. Irrigation efficiency improved on 18,894 acres, while grazing improvements enhanced 361,711 acres, wetlands were restored on 383 acres, and fish and wildlife habitat improved on 178,322 acres.

The UACD received $900,000 in state funding last year under a contract with the agriculture department, which spent a total of $1.6 million on conservation. This money accounts for 41 percent of UACD revenue even though there are many other potential sources.

Utah conservation districts investigate soil erosion, non-point water pollution and other processes that degrade the land's productivity, and then coordinate strategies and projects to slow the damage. Elected five-member boards oversee the districts. Each gets $4,237 in base funding from the state, hardly enough to accomplish much without infusions from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and other federal sources.

"This funding is typically used to pay for convention registrations and membership dues, to hire part-time clerical staff, and to pay for current expenses such as mail, phones, and office supplies," auditors wrote.

Auditors' biggest concerns targeted the influence the UACD' long-time executive vice president Gordon Younker wielded over how individual districts invest their resources. They also said Younker's compensation package, worth about $156,000, may be too high and too much of it is charged to the state grant.

"Because the majority of the resource conservation funding is contracted to UACD, the association is able to make the majority of conservation decisions," auditors wrote. 'We believe UCC should be determining the use of conservation funding."

While the association supports the idea of improving UCC oversight, it disputes the claim that Younker is overpaid and directs hiring and program decisions at the district level.

"UACD has acted in the best interests of the CDs. That is our purpose," Stembridge wrote.

bmaffly@sltrib.com