Purpose and Duties

Purpose & Duties of Conservation Commissions*

History & Intent

Massachusetts invented the municipal Conservation Commission. By the 1950’s the need for protection of natural resources at the local government level had been recognized for many years. 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 sec.8C). The Conservation Commission Act enabled Massachusetts’ municipalities to establish Conservation Commissions. Commissions were formed through a vote of each local legislative body (town meeting or city council). During 1958, 12 towns accepted its provisions and established Conservation Commissions.  

Every city and town in the Commonwealth now has a Commission. Once a Commission is established, the municipality may not abolish it because the statute does not give it that power.

Although some Commissions have experienced difficulties in developing viable programs and gaining consistent support, many have succeeded beyond their most optimistic expectations. Since community awareness seems to be more in balance with development pressures in suburban areas, accomplishments tend to be greatest there. However, there are also examples of outstanding success in urban areas and rural communities.

Conservation Commissions are a group of volunteers who work long hours to achieve community conservation goals. Over 100 Commissions have permanent full-time employees, many of whom are conservation professionals providing invaluable support to volunteer Commissioners. Many other Commissions have part time or clerical staff. Overall more than half of Conservation Commissions have some level of staffing.

Legal Authority

Open Space Protection

The duties and responsibilities of a Conservation Commission are spelled out in the Conservation  Commission Act. Under this Act a municipal Conservation Commission is the official agency specifically charged with the protection of a community’s natural resources. A Conservation Commission also advises other municipal officials and boards on conservation issues that relate to their areas of responsibility.

The first power given to Commissions in 1957 focused on “promotion and development of natural resources…and protection of watershed resources.” Under these powers, Commissions exercise the functions of planning, acquiring and managing open space, and encouraging and monitoring conservation and agricultural preservation restrictions.

Furthermore, a Commission may accept gifts of money or land with the approval of the city council or selectboard. Such action does not involve the delays associated with obtaining town meeting approval. It is only through a Commission’s actions that a municipality may qualify for state Self-Help funds. Chapter 40, Sec. 8C 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 monies for open Space acquisition.

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, sec. 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, floodplains, banks, Riverfront areas, beaches and surface waters.

Over one-third of Massachusetts’ communities have adopted local non-zoning ordinances or bylaws 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.


The Conservation Commission has the authority to adopt rules and regulations for the use of conservation land (G.L. Ch.40, sec.8C). If a non-zoning wetland bylaw gives it the power, the Commission may also adopt regulations to implement the bylaw/ordinance. (See also HB sec. 4.1.1 and Ch.13) Such regulations have the full force of the law; they are not mere “guidelines”.

*The above information was taken from the Environmental Handbook for Massachusetts Conservation Commissions (Chapter 2).