North Dakota’s Soil and Water Conservation Leadership Academy provides conservation professionals critical soft skills needed to make water stewardship a reality

Water in North Dakota, as in other states, presents unique challenges that vary by geography and scale. In the eastern part of the state, with its heavy clay soils and flat topography, excess water is often an issue. Further west, precipitation is considerably lower and problems associated with a lack of water are more common. Statewide, nonpoint source pollution, often in the form of excess nutrients, can lead to water quality problems at both large and small scales. Point source pollution also poses a challenge, with sources varying widely from one corner of the state to another.

Attendees at the Soil and Water Conservation Leadership Academy playing the Nutrient Reduction Game

Participants of the Soil and Water Conservation Leadership Academy playing the Nutrient Reduction Game created by faculty at Purdue University.

This year water shortage is the primary issue, with 98% of the state currently in drought, much of that severe. This drought has exacerbated both water quantity and quality issues across the state, and has highlighted the importance of water stewardship.

North Dakota’s Soil Conservation Districts (SCDs) play a major water stewardship role in our state. SCDs provide technical assistance, educational programs, financial support, and help implement conservation projects that affect both water quality and quantity. This difficult and varied mission requires a skillset that includes not only technical knowledge of conservation practices, but also skills in leadership, marketing, outreach, finance, and more.

In order to better serve the locally elected and appointed district supervisors and conservation professionals who provide these services, NDSU Extension and the North Dakota State Soil Conservation Committee partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality to create the Soil and Water Conservation Leadership Academy.

The Soil and Water Conservation Leadership Academy is a locally delivered educational program designed to enhance participants’ abilities to lead community-based conservation projects. First offered in 2018, this program was created to address an identified need for increased leadership capacity while increasing the presence of underrepresented groups in conservation leadership.

The Soil and Water Conservation Leadership Academy improves participants’ ability to:

  • Serve as an effective member of a team or board
  • Navigate conflict successfully
  • Seek out and act upon community input
  • Facilitate effective discussions and meetings
  • Perform team-based conservation planning
  • Direct their organization through change
  • Appreciate the value of diverse multigenerational teams
  • Build and maintain conservation partnerships

These  “soft” skills are critical for making an organization work smoothly, helping staff feel valued, accessing new ideas, and ultimately for achieving conservation goals. By supporting and strengthening our local conservation leaders the academy has the greatest potential to improve water stewardship in our state and region, and see results moving forward.

The academy currently consists of two levels and has typically been offered as a one-day, in-person workshop. The program moved to a virtual format for the 2020-2021 training season, and future plans are to offer both in-person and virtual options in order to reach those who prefer either format.

So far, 269 participants have completed Level I of the academy, with 131 of those continuing on to complete Level II, and the team continues to assess, improve, and expand, with plans for a Level III focused on community-based conservation planning underway for 2022. Additional online, asynchronous resources are also in development, with a goal of making educational materials available in a variety of formats and for “just-in-time” learning.

Aaron Field, North Dakota State University Extension

Headshot of Aaron Field

Aaron Field (Photo by Daniel Binkard/Chadron State College)

Aaron Field is a new member of the Network Leadership Team, and joined NDSU Extension as a Program Coordinator, Soil and Water Leadership Development in August 2020. In this role, Aaron works with colleagues in NDSU Extension’s Leadership and Civic Engagement program to increase leadership capacity and participation among North Dakota’s citizens. Aaron also supports the State Soil Conservation Committee as they provide technical, educational, and administrative support to Soil Conservation Districts in the state.

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