State’s Investment in Conservation Reduced to Pre-2000 Levels

In a move that has left many in the conservation community disillusioned, Illinois’ 103rd General Assembly has finalized the FY25 budget, which includes a significant cut to funding for Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs). The budget, totaling $53.1 billion, will return the state’s investment in SWCDs to pre-2000 funding levels of $4.5 million, representing a nearly 48% decrease in operational funding.

A Frontal Attack on Conservation Efforts

The decision to slash SWCD funding has been seen as a frontal attack by those on the frontlines of soil and water conservation. The governor’s proposal to reduce funding was confirmed by the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture in the IDOA appropriations committee. This move has sparked concern among conservationists who view it as a step backward in the state’s commitment to protecting its vital natural resources.

Stakeholders Rally for Support, But to No Avail

In response to the proposed cuts, the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts (AISWCD) banded together with several supporters, including the Illinois Soybean Association, Illinois Environmental Council, and Illinois Stewardship Alliance. They engaged with elected officials in the statehouse on multiple occasions, garnering support from legislators in both parties who expressed discontent with the proposed funding levels.

Despite these efforts, advocates in the Senate were unable to adjust the funding levels as requested. The House further advanced the Senate’s decision by approving the FY25 budget late on Tuesday. The budget has now moved to the governor’s office to be signed into law, solidifying the substantial decrease in SWCD operational funding.

In the face of this setback, the conservation community is choosing resilience over despair. Drawing inspiration from Maya Angelou’s words, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it,” they are determined to find a path forward that ensures Illinois’ essential Soil and Water Conservation Districts remain on the frontlines, protecting the state’s soil and water resources.

Taking cues from Michelle Obama’s call to “go high” when others “go low,” the SWCD community is focusing on constructive steps rather than dwelling on the funding cuts. Their strategy involves diversifying their treasury to become less dependent on volatile funding, maintaining service to stakeholders to accelerate locally-led conservation efforts, and engaging those who value frontline, boots-on-the-ground conservation agriculture.

Federal Support for Conservation Agriculture

In contrast to the state’s actions, the Biden administration at the federal level has demonstrated a deep understanding and appreciation for conservation. The administration has invested an unprecedented amount into agricultural conservation nationwide. However, these commitments often fall short in implementation due to reduced technical assistance funding for frontline SWCD staff.

Despite the state’s return to pre-2000 funding levels, Illinois SWCDs are determined not to let these actions hinder their ability to promote healthy soil and clean water. As Andrew Sloan Draper, former President of the University of Illinois, once said, “The wealth of Illinois is in her soil and her strength lies in its intellectual development.” The SWCDs see themselves as this intellectual force, tasked with defending the state’s soil wealth.

The SWCDs are reminding elected officials and stakeholders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s warning: “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Roosevelt’s foresight in investing in conservation 88 years ago showcased an understanding of intergenerational equity. Today, the SWCDs are echoing this sentiment, emphasizing their role as guardians of the future against the claims of the present.

Moving Forward: A Stakeholder-Driven Approach to Water Conservation

In response to the funding cut, the Illinois SWCD system is calling for decisive, collective action. They aim to stay the course, responding to the immediate conservation crisis while shaping a recovery that prioritizes social and environmental outcomes. Their goal is to align the conservation of natural resources with the constituents and commitments of the state’s General Assembly and highest leadership.
The actions taken in the coming weeks, months, and years will lay the foundations for a more stakeholder-driven and sustainable environment. Despite the financial setback, Illinois’ Soil and Water Conservation Districts remain committed to their mission, ensuring that the state’s most precious resources—its soil and water—are protected for generations to come.

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