Conservation Commissions in Massachusetts
Massachusetts invented the municipal Conservation Commission. By the 1950s the need for protection of natural resources at the local government level was well known. This need led to the formation of town forest committees, park commissions, playground commissions, and recreation commissions.
Sportsmen's clubs, garden clubs, nature associations and charitable foundations had done much to conserve our vanishing natural resources. But a specific municipal conservation agency and authorization of conservation as a valid municipal purpose were needed before communities could acquire areas for passive use, rather than active recreational development. In 1957 Representative John Dolan of Ipswich filed a bill in the Legislature which became the Conservation Commission Act (G. L. Chapter 40 §8C). The new law enabled municipalities to establish Conservation Commissions through a vote of the local legislative body (town meeting or city council). During 1958, 12 towns formed Conservation Commissions. Every city and town in the Commonwealth now has a Commission.
The duties and responsibilities of a Conservation Commission are spelled out in the Conservation Commission Act. The Conservation Commission is the official agency specifically charged with the protection of a community's natural resources. The Commission also advises other municipal officials and boards on conservation issues that relate to their areas of responsibility.
Commissions' Legislative Authority
In Massachusetts, Conservation Commissions' authority comes from several sources: the Conservation Commission Act (MGL Chapter 40 section 8C) for open space protection; the Wetlands Protection Act (MGL Chapter 131 section 40) for protecting wetlands and waterways (Commissions have real power - they issue the permits); and the home rule provisions of the state constitution for non-zoning wetlands bylaws.
All state statutes can be found in the Massachusetts General Laws on the state web site at www.mass.gov/legis/laws/mgl/
Practical Information and How to Join
Conservation Commissions are the local environmental agencies in Massachusetts - responsible for protecting the land, water and biological resources of their communities.
Conservation Commissions are a group of volunteers who work long hours to achieve community conservation goals. Commissioners are appointed by their select boards or mayors. Through a special act of the Legislature one community has an elected Commission. The Commission often plays a supporting role in the choice of candidates.
Conservation Commissions have between three and seven members. The town meeting or city council sets the number. Terms are three years in length.
There is no state age, citizenship, residency, knowledge or experience requirements, though there may be local requirements. The tasks of a Commission require a great deal of study, learning and thought by its members, who become expert only by patience and work. Appointments should not be made or taken lightly.
The overriding factors governing appointments should be a candidate's interest in doing the conservation job needed by the town: open space and water resource protection. Since this goal requires a continual, firm commitment to conservation, persons who have no conflict of interest and who relate well to others should be selected. The Commission should represent a variety of interests, skills and backgrounds.
An engineer, a biologist, a naturalist and a lawyer may prove especially helpful. Knowledge of soils is useful. For purposes of coordination of efforts, well-qualified individuals who are members of other boards may be appointed to serve a term.
Over 100 Commissions have permanent full-time employees, many of whom are conservation professionals providing invaluable support to volunteer Commissioners. More than half of Conservation Commissions have some level of staffing.
In addition to voting members, many Commissions also have associate members and committees on which interested citizens serve.
If you have an interest in serving on your local Commission, talk to the Commissioners and staff, attend meetings and hearings, and get a sense of what the job is all about. Volunteer to help. Let the Commission and the selectboard know of your interest.
The Job of Open Space Protection
The first powers given to Commissions in the Conservation Commission Act focused on "promotion and development of natural resources...and protection of watershed resources." Under these powers Commissions undertake planning, acquiring and managing open space, and encouraging and monitoring conservation and agricultural preservation restrictions.
A Commission may accept gifts of money or land with the approval of the city council or selectboard, thus avoiding the delays associated with obtaining town meeting approval.
The Act authorizes Conservation Commissions to inventory the municipality's natural resources and to prepare relevant maps and plans. Open Space and Recreation Plans are therefore coordinated by Commissions. These important documents are a prerequisite for securing Self-Help moneys for open space acquisition.
Today many Conservation Commissions spend the bulk of their time hearing and conditioning wetlands cases. While this responsibility is vital, it often leaves inadequate time for open space protection and other matters. To allow Commandate, many Commissions have set up open space, land management and other committees involving those members (and associate members) most interested in the Commission's original mandate.
The Job of Wetlands Protection
As the municipal focal point for environmental protection, Conservation Commissions were given responsibility in 1972 for administering the Wetlands Protection Act (G.L. Ch. 131 §40). Thus the Commission serves the community in a regulatory as well as a conservation capacity.
Under this law, Commissions across the state process over ten thousand applications every year for permits to do work in and near wetlands, flood plains, banks, riverfront areas, beaches and surface waters. The Wetlands Protection Act is described in detail in MACC's Environmental Handbook for Massachusetts Conservation Commissioners. Over half of Massachusetts' communities have adopted local non-zoning bylaws or ordinances giving Commissions further power to protect wetlands. The state's highest court has approved the use of such municipal laws. These are administered by Conservation Commissions. If the bylaw/ordinance gives it the power, the Commission may also adopt regulations for its implementation.