Feature photo: Garfield County consists of primarily open, working landscapes. Expanses like this highlight Eastern Montana in all of its glory. Photo courtesy of Dusty Olson.
Leader says collaboration, diversity create strength, community
After just a few minutes of conversation, it’s obvious that Dusty Olson loves her work with the Garfield County Conservation District (CD). She gushes over her job and her coworkers. After landing the role, one of the board members welcomed her with open arms. “You are getting a family here,” they said. And that is certainly true.
Conservation Districts comprise “units of local government designed to help citizens conserve their soil, water, and other renewable resources.” Five elected local board members govern and fund each CD with mill levies and Montana DNRC grants. There are 58 Conservation Districts across Montana; most — but not all — follow county lines. The Conservation Districts educate, assist with grant-writing and lead projects in their districts — filling typical duties for administrators, technicians or Big Sky Watershed Corp members. However, each CD offers different services.
Dusty, the Garfield County Conservation District administrator, has been with the Garfield County CD for nearly three years. Based in Jordan, the district serves Garfield County, a population of about 1,200, and more, via partnerships and cross-county projects.
A native of Montana and the daughter of a ranch hand, Dusty grew up in Lewistown. She found herself in Garfield County because of her husband whose hometown is Jordan. She said she never expected to work for the Conservation District.
Most people who are CD administrators have a natural resource management background. Dusty, on the other hand, previously sold Aflac insurance. She heard of the job opening through word of mouth. She was willing to try, even though she knew she had a huge learning curve. Sometimes, she admits, it feels as if she still doesn’t know everything the job entails.
Luckily, Dusty loves the work. She gets to alternate between the office and the field, and she works with a wide range of folks from diverse agencies, groups and walks of life. Better yet, she is very good at her job.
Garfield County, for those who do not know, lies in the eastern part of Montana, touching the southern half of Fort Peck Reservoir. It consists of primarily open land, and it has one of the lowest population densities per mile in the state. The topography includes breaks, rolling hills and knolls of pine. It truly highlights Eastern Montana in all its glory.
The Garfield County CD has a lot of work to do within such a large land mass. The CD conducts both short-term and long-term projects to chip away at its mission: “to provide services to land users in protecting and conserving natural resources and to provide a link to state and federal conservation agencies and programs.”
A few of the district’s long-term projects include:
- Bio-control of weeds: Knapweed, easily spread via waterways, invades the banks of the Musselshell River and its tributaries. Through a cost-share program, the Garfield County CD uses specific bugs to mitigate the growth and spread of knapweed.
- Facilitation of grants for Big Sky Watershed Corps: Although the Garfield County CD does not house a Big Sky Watershed Corps member, the board facilitates a grant that provides some funding for the Corps. The Big Sky Watershed Corps works throughout the state, and sometimes that work falls within the scope of the Garfield County CD. For instance, two Big Sky Watershed Corps members once temporarily stepped away from their work in the Musselshell watershed to instead support one of Garfield County’s Aquatic Invasive Species check station when no one else was available to man the station.
- Aquatic Invasive Species Boat Checkpoint Stations: Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS), like zebra mussels, are the biggest threat to Montana watersheds. Incredibly, no zebra mussels have invaded Montana waterways, thanks to local government agencies’ extensive efforts checking boats, the most common vector for invasion. The Garfield County CD runs two check stations: one near Wibaux and another at a rest stop 30 miles from town.
Dusty says AIS control is the group’s largest water-based project. One mussel can cause millions of dollars worth of damage due to its fast reproduction. During the summer, the CD spends a lot of time collaborating with agencies and other groups from around the state to control AIS.
“Boat inspections stations are Montana’s defense system for AIS traveling into our state,” said Dusty, “and if we can’t interact with the public who are transporting the boats which is the most common vector of transfer … we do [not] have the opportunity to interact and educate to say ‘Oh, you have standing water here, lets drain and dry that.’”
As of right now, there is no strategy for killing invasive mussels in the waterways without killing nearly all other species, including native ones. The only option is to not allow mussels into our waterways in the first place, she said.
In addition to the important work of warding off invasive species, the district’s relationship building and collaborations are unprecedented.
“It also has been so amazing … the partnerships that we have built with other agencies and other individual people have been so inspiring, and this is a threat that really takes working together,” she said, adding that the “conservation world is just a big family.”
In addition to water-related projects, the Garfield County CD works to help identify new weeds found in donated hay during the large 2017 wildfires and works to remove fuels to reduce fire risk throughout the county.
THE BOARD AND COMMUNITY
Dusty praises her particularly active board for their work within the CD and the community at large. In addition to serving with the CD, board members collectively represent these groups: Montana Association of Conservation Districts, Missouri River Conservation Districts Council, Little Dry Water Users and the Charles M. Russell Community Working Group.
Overall, it’s clear that Garfield County has something good going on. Dusty Olson has found her niche during her tenure. Working together as a strong board and close-knit community, it seems as if the CD is in its groove.
— Brooke Reynolds
Thanks to Dusty Olson for speaking with me about her role and the Garfield County Conservation District with me — it was a delight!
Updated on August 21, 2019 at 2 p.m.
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