Growing up on a farm near Stockton, you saw a lot of change in the Central Valley. How did this influence your career?
As a boy I witnessed huge black peat clouds forming over the San Joaquin Delta, as vast amounts of topsoil were literally blown away by wind and drought. Poor agricultural practices, imported from other regions and promoted by well-meaning institutions, were not tuned for California. As native habitat and dryland agriculture gave way to intensive irrigated agriculture, it became clear that practices needed to be geared for local conditions so the Valley could continue supporting both wildlife and agrarian production.
You spent nearly 35 years at the Natural Resource Conservation Service. What changes have you seen, and where is the NRCS headed in the future?
Originally called the Soil Conservation Service, the agency rose from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s with the laudable goal of preventing a similar ecological disaster from ever happening again. While the original focus was on soil retention and improving agricultural practices, its founder Hugh Hammond Bennett actually envisioned the new practice of ‘ecosystem management.’ So the name change in 1994 made a lot of sense: it allowed us to include things like birds, frogs, bees, and b>even endangered species, and to increase the scope of NRCS regarding all natural resources.
Also unique to NRCS was the intention to minimize federal bureaucracy and enable people closest to local conservation actions to make decisions. Across California today, locally elected or appointed Resource Conservations Districts—staffed and managed by local farmers and ranchers—are using Farm Bill resources to implement highly effective conservation projects. My work at the regional level of NRCS included a new method for landowners to understand site-specific responses to actions such as tree or shrub planting, prescribed burning, or prescribed grazing.
Why did you choose to come to PRBO Conservation Science?
I have been associated with PRBO for more than two decades, beginning with a joint project to put a bird perspective into improved grazing practices at a California property restoring water and riparian habitat. We’ve recently worked together to expand the focus of Partners in Flight from monitoring birds to increasing quality habitat with the use of Farm Bill resources (which totaled $1.2 billion in 2010). PRBO has an incredible legacy of collecting, analyzing, and publishing data on birds and their habitats. My role here is to help PRBO staff take their scientific information and use it to plan and implement conservation projects. In 2010, the NRCS spent $37 million on riparian and wetland projects in California. PRBO can add considerable biological value to these projects. Working closely with private landowners, NRCS, and other partners, we have a chance to reverse the decline of wildlife in North America and enhance the ecosystem services we all depend on.