What is a Conservation Commission?

A group of volunteers working to protect the natural resources in your community.

Conservation Commission Origins

A 1956 proposal to drain and fill a marsh in Ipswich, Massachusetts for a housing development demonstrated the need for a local governmental body responsible for the conservation of the natural resources of the municipality. A group of community residents successfully used a state law authorizing the creation of local commissions for industrial development as the basis of their argument "for the acquisition and protection of the marsh on the grounds that it would enhance community values". (Grass-Roots Environmentalists) The Massachusetts Legislature passed the first law enabling a municipality to establish a conservation commission in 1957; by the end of the following year 11 local conservation commissions were created in Massachusetts. (Conservation Commissions in Massachusetts)

Other northeastern states followed Massachusetts' lead: Rhode Island passed an enabling act in 1960, Connecticut in 1961, New Hampshire in 1963, Maine in 1965, New York in 1967 and New Jersey in 1968. ("Background and Evaluation of New Hampshire's Conservation Commissions") Almost ten years later in 1977 Vermont adopted enabling legislation. Municipal conservation commissions exist today in all six New England states, New York, and New Jersey.

Conservation Commissions Origins in New Hampshire

In New Hampshire, the first step toward the development of conservation commissions was taken on April 6, 1960, when Leslie Clark, education director of the Society for Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), attended the first New England Conservation Conference at Harvard Business School, which focused on the projects and problems of the new conservation commissions. In a report of the meeting in the Summer 1960 issue of the Society's Forest Notes, Les wrote: "This grass roots level attempt to promote conservation in local areas is commendable and points to the fact that many of our conservation problems can be approached from the local level." (Forest Notes, Summer 1960, p. 40)

In 1963, the Conservation Commission Enabling Act was passed by the New Hampshire General Court and became Chapter 36-A of the NH Revised Statutes Annotated. However, few municipalities were aware of the new statute, and only one commission, Hollis, was created in 1964. In December of 1964 the Forest Society sent a copy of the enabling act to SPNHF members, urging them to initiate action to form conservation commissions in their municipalities.

At the March 1965 Town Meetings, 18 towns established conservation commissions: Bedford, Center Harbor, Durham, Epsom, Exeter, Francestown, Gilford, Hampton, Hampton Falls, Hollis, Hooksett, Littleton, Meredith, New London, Rindge, Rye, Salem and Sunapee. In 1966, sixteen additional towns created conservation commissions, and the NH Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) and SPNHF published the first handbook for conservation commissions. This handbook described areas of concern to conservation commissions and listed the federal and state agencies that might help.

The first statewide meeting of conservation commissions, organized by Les Clark of the Forest Society, was held in February 1967. One result of this meeting was a quarterly newsletter for conservation commissioners, edited by Les Clark and first published by SPNHF in March, 1967. At town meetings that month, 23 towns voted to establish conservation commissions.

In late spring, representatives of a number of state and federal natural resource agencies met to determine what services the agencies could provide to assist the new commissions. Assisted by a grant from the Spaulding-Potter Charitable Trusts, the UNH Cooperative Extension Service was able to offer the expertise of Floyd V. Barker. Spaulding-Potter also provided a small "seed money" grant to the Deerfield Conservation Commission and subsequently established a program to match money raised locally for a conservation fund as well as a more extensive "seed money" grant program administered by SPNHF.

In April of 1968, Keene became the first New Hampshire city to establish a conservation commission. At about the same time, SPNHF hired Malcolm "Tink" Taylor, whose duties included working with municipal conservation commissions. Over the next two years, more towns established conservation commissions and Spaulding-Potter provided additional funds for the "seed money" program.

Today there are 216 conservation commissions in the state of New Hampshire.

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