It is one of the least-known races this election year but also one of the most competitive. Along with General Assembly members, supervisors and school board members, voters this November will pick three people to serve as the elected directors of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District Board.
Five candidates are vying for three seats at a time when 15 candidates for supervisor, school board member, delegate or senator are unopposed.
Three of the five volunteer directors must run for election countywide every four years and two of them are appointed. The three incumbents, Sally Ormsby, Dewey Bond and Greg Evans are challenged by David Bulova and Jeremy Good.
The two appointed members are Adria Bordas and Jean Packard, former chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
In the past, the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation Board has worked on preventing erosion by restoring stream banks; monitoring the water quality in the streams; mapping the county's soils as well as education and lobbying in local schools and at the General Assembly. It also helps horse owners and golf course managers figure out the best way to manage their land in a way that minimizes run-off.
"Most people do not realize the Soil and Water Conservation District is an independent jurisdiction," said Ormsby. It is separate from the county save for the fact that Fairfax County provides 70 percent of the board's $426,000 budget. There are 47 such districts in Virginia and about 3,000 nationwide.
THE DISTRICTS have been around since the Depression, said Laura McNichol, government affairs grassroots coordinator at the National Association of Conservation Districts.
"They were created back in the Dust Bowl days as a result of poor management practices across the country in agriculture," she said.
As some of the country's most fertile soil turned to dust and blew away in the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture encouraged states to create boards charged with helping farmers better manage their land.
In some states, such as New Jersey, the legislature decided that every member of the conservation district boards would be appointed. In others, like Virginia, lawmakers chose to put some of the seats up for election.
While they may not be well known in suburban areas like Fairfax County, the conservation district boards enjoy a higher profile in rural communities where farmers have much at stake from the board’s decisions, said Diane Hoffman, administrator of the Northern Virginia District.
The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District came about in 1945, when dairy farming was one of the area’s major industries. At that time, said Hoffman, "It was a great interface between the local farmers and the feds."
"Unfortunately, a lot of that doesn’t apply today to this district because we're very urban," she added. "That's why we're kind of unique."
Instead of working with farmers, the board today works with developers and other major landowners in the county. It may not be a well-known mission, but it is no less important, said Hoffman.
"In this area with a million people and with our very urban missions, people who need to know about us know us," she said.
IF THE COUNTY'S official environmental advocates are going to run for office, it seems inevitable that they are going to have to deal with political parties.
Although the candidates don't run with party affiliation, the parties are free to endorse them. This year, the Democrats and Republicans have each thrown their support behind two hopefuls. The fifth candidate, Jeremy Good, who is also running for chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said he represents the Green Party.
Some of the candidates said they regretted the intrusion of party politics in their work on behalf of the environment.
"Frankly, in my view, I wish there were no endorsements to keep it very very nonpartisan because I look at the environment as being nonpartisan," said Ormsby, who has been endorsed by the Democrats.
"It's too bad it's gotten to be the way it is," said Bond.
In 1993, the county GOP refused to endorse Bond, a Republican, because he supported Jean Packard’s appointment to the board. Packard, a former Democratic supervisor, was the best qualified, he said, regardless of her party affiliation. This year, Bond has been endorsed by the Republican Party.