The U.S. Department of Natural Resource and Conservation Service office in Choteau has undergone a number of changes over the last year. Most are not noticeable to the public, but some will change how staff approaches funding and helping area residents.

Paula Gunderson, district conservationist, said the biggest changes involve moving under a new regional office, working within a unit structure and funding of conservation projects being handled in specific areas instead of a farm-by-farm approach.

Gunderson said change can mean challenges for an office, but it can also provide growth and new opportunities. That is how she expects the changes being made at NRCS office to be.

To explain the new changes and make plans for the future, community meetings in Teton County are planned next week to take input from farmers, ranchers and members of the public on developing long-range plans.

These meetings will be held Tuesday, June 11, in Choteau from 2-4 p.m. at the USDA conference room; Wednesday, June 12, from 7-9 p.m. in the training room at the Fairfield ambulance station; and Thursday, June 13, from 2-4 p.m. at the Dutton/Teton Public Library. Gunderson will lead the meetings in identifying and prioritizing resource concerns for Teton County.

The NRCS offices are divided into four regions: Miles City, Bozeman, Great Falls and Missoula. The Teton office, previously under the Great Falls region, has moved to the Missoula region. “Everything shifted east and that put us under Missoula,” Gunderson said. For the working group, Choteau will be with the Helena and Whitehall offices. As a working group, the employees in the three offices will be available to assist where needed while working in their individual offices. “If the work load is greater in Choteau, employees in Helena or Whitehall can assist us and in turn, we will be helping when the load shifts to another office,” Gunderson said.

The Missoula, Helena and Whitehall regions have more forestry work, while Teton County has more crops and grazing. “In theory, with the variety of crops and potential projects, the busy seasons shouldn’t fall at the same time, allowing for sharing of time and talents within the three offices,” Gunderson said.

This change was made last fall and is a work in progress, Gunderson said. For the most part, area residents will see limited changes in the office associated with the regional office change and working group approach. However, the change of harnessing the power of multiple landowners in one area undertaking similar conservation projects to achieve a regional result will involve more planning on the NRCS office and producers.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is the agency’s most commonly used program to address private land conservation needs. Beginning in 2020, general EQIP funding and funding for special projects in Montana will be directed to the highest-ranking Targeted Implementation Plans. NRCS will commit funds to TIPs for the duration of the plans, usually two to three years. Montana landowners will still be able to participate in national priorities as they have in the past.

“Montana Focused Conservation was adopted in 2019 as a new, enhanced approach to delivering Farm Bill programs,” Gunderson said.

An essential element of NRCS’s new approach is to develop long-range plans by working with producers and partners to deliver Farm Bill programs through focused conservation projects across Montana. Focused conservation will enable NRCS to deliver positive conservation outcomes delivered in a manner that improves working lands across Montana.

Each NRCS office will work with partners, producers and local entities to develop a vision for their county. By collaborating with partners, NRCS leverages additional funding sources from other groups to make the most effective use of limited federal conservation dollars.

Instead of funding conservation projects on a scattered, farm-by-farm approach, Gunderson said, NRCS targets its investments in very specific areas to achieve clearly defined natural resource goals as identified by local partners. This approach harnesses the power of multiple landowners in one area undertaking similar conservation projects to achieve a regional result.

Gunderson said Teton County has received funding for many projects throughout the yearsm and she doesn’t foresee the new approach necessarily reducing funding for projects.

However, to be considered for funding, Gunderson strongly feels applicants need to have project proposals outlined, researched and ready. She said it will take more coordination and communication, but the potential is there for some collaboration that will be positive for all involved.

“Focused conservation begins with goals identified in long-range plans at the county level,” Gunderson said.

Following the input from the community meetings, NRCS will develop targeted implementation plans to guide on-the-ground work.

Gunderson encourages producers to attend the three community meetings and offer input. She and all of the staff at Choteau NRCS office welcome producers and area residents to stop by the office and visit with them regarding the changes or any of the programs NRCS oversees.