Working for NRCS and with Landowners: The Wonders Never Cease to Amaze Me

Working for NRCS and with Landowners: The Wonders Never Cease to Amaze Me, Post by Susan Hoey Lees

I have been involved with agriculture in one form or another all my life. I have owned and operated a stable. Horses are still a passion, so I diligently manage our pastures for them and the pleasure of the wildlife that come to graze nearly nightly.

We manage our own forest lands, and I am also passionate for all types of gardens whether they be for edibles, flower/prairie viewing, cut-flowers or purely sharing my heritage fruit trees’ bounties with the wildlife and horses. Watching wildlife on our properties has always been a delight for me; but watching land and wildlife return and thrive on a customer’s property is especially delightful to me.

I am currently working as a Resource Conservationist with NRCS in the Chehalis Service Center, serving ranchers, farmers, private forest landowners and managers.

Working for NRCS and with Landowners: The Wonders Never Cease to Amaze Me

It has been 10 years since I made a rather radical career change to follow my heart and try to marry my passions for healing/restoring the land, the environment, agriculture and technical and design skills all in one. I did not know if I would be able to find my dream job.

I can now fondly recall one of the questions that my potential supervisor asked me in my first phone interview for an engineering technician position for the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). The question was; why do you want to work for NRCS?

I had innocently answered that I was seeking a position that would allow me to marry my passions and to help people help the land; and I could hear the interviewer starting to softly chuckle. I was horrified and inquired if I said something wrong, to which he inquired if I knew what the agency’s (NRCS) mission statement was. My heart raced and I was abashed and began to feel that my interview was going in a direction that was not boding well for me as he continued to chuckle deeply into the phone. I was mortified and shyly stated; no, I did not know the agency’s mission statement. My interviewer’s chuckle got even deeper, yet it contained a tickle of a hint of delight; finally, he stated that he felt I would fit in quite well with the agency as the NRCS mission statement was “Helping People Help the Land”. He offered me the position as a Civil Engineering Technician. I had in fact found, and was offered, my dream job!

Over the last 10 years I have held a few different positions with NRCS, in a few different locations, and have had the privilege of working with a wide variety of private landowners and land managers addressing a wide variety of resource issues. Often these landowners would seek financial assistance through one of NRCS’s financial programs to implement/install some of the recommendations. The result is almost always “helping people to help the land” through addressing resource concerns, protecting natural resources, and/or restoring degraded ecosystems.

The beginnings of NRCS are rather humble, the agency was formed as a result of the urgings of one man, Huge Hammond Bennett, to Congress to address the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s by conserving the nations precious resources. Conserving resources throughout the nation, not just in Dust Bowl territory, so there would be healthy soils to grow food, clean water to drink and grow crops, clean air to breathe, healthy plants for food, fiber & ecosystems, and healthy animals.

The urgings were so compelling that Congress established a federal agency called the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), and the legacy of using science-based technologies to address resource concerns affecting soils, water, air, plants and animals was developed.

The agency’s vision was and continues to be a simple one; use a partnership approach to work with landowners, community groups, local governments, Tribes, States and other Federal agencies on a voluntary basis. Thus, the agency began and continues to be a non-regulatory Federal agency working with landowners and land managers, offering technical and science-based knowledge for free, through site visits by NRCS staff with a landowner or manager.

The agency’s name was changed from SCS in the 1980’s to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, with that name change also came the Farm Bill programs that began offering financial incentives/assistance to landowners and managers to implement the recommendations shared with them on how to address the resource concerns identified.

Here is a link to explore more about NRCS; who we are, the partnership approach, and a little about our Conservation Assistance. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/wa/about/

The list of NRCS practices (a term used to describe both management and physically installed components) is extensive. Recommended practices are dependent on the objectives of the landowner and the land use and resource concerns being treated, see examples below for common types of practices.

General practices used for many land uses: fencing, irrigation practices, livestock practices

Cropland practices often include: cover cropping, no-till, soil health, pest management, irrigation practices

Prairie restoration practices often include: invasive weed control, brush management, native species reseeding, upland wildlife habitat management

Ecosystem restoration practices often include: early successional habitat development/management, wetland enhancements or restorations, tree/shrub site prep & plantings, wetland wildlife habitat management, wildlife habitat planting (pollinator hedgerow)

Fish passage practices often include: barrier removals or aquatic organism passage elements, channel bed stabilization, critical area plantings, riparian buffers

Forestry practices often include: invasive weed control, tree/shrub site prep & plantings, pre- commercial thinning, riparian forest buffers, upland wildlife habitat management

The 2018 Farm Bill is the newest Congressional authorization that allows NRCS to have funding to incentivize landowners to implement practices to protect or restore natural resources. There are a few programs under this authorization, but the most popular is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Here is a link that covers all the current programs: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/wa/programs/farmbill/

NRCS is taking EQIP applications now, the deadline for all documents to be in is November 20th, 2020. It is a good idea to begin talking with an NRCS staff person to discuss your resource concerns, your objectives and then decide if you want only the advice and information from the agency, or if you want to seek financial assistance through one of the programs to install/implement some of the practices that may be recommended during an on-site visit. Here is a link that will guide you through the basic steps of applying for the EQIP program: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/programs/financial/eqip/?cid=nrcseprd1342638

There are NRCS offices throughout WA. I am working out of the Chehalis Office, in Lewis County, but have worked out of other counties. The attached link can be used to find the nearest local office to you. https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app?service=page/CountyMap&state=WA&stateName=Washington&stateCode=53

The wonders never cease to amaze me when technical and environmental knowledge is shared with people who want to be good stewards of the land. Couple that knowledge with some form of financial assistance for the recommendations to be installed, and voila! the land & wildlife begins to recover, it becomes rejuvenated through the restoration process or management efforts. Follow-up visits are typically filled with delights as the landowner’s own passions and awe of the land’s healing process become re-ignited as they embrace a stewardship role for their lands!

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