The Partnerscapes Blog by Steve Jester

The last several years have seen a huge increase in federal conservation funding going back to the Great American Outdoors Act of 2020, through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 and culminating (so far) with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022. While all of these include things other than private lands conservation, they all included some funding for voluntary conservation partnerships with private landowners. The IRA alone resulted in $19.5 billion over a handful of years for implementing USDA conservation programs, over and above Farm Bill appropriations. The dollars are here. Now the challenge is developing rules, developing relationships and partners, and getting work down on the ground with some pretty aggressive timelines for implementation.

As with all voluntary conservation programs, these dollars will require relationships, and then partnerships, developed between people of different perspectives–even if we are talking about the most basic relationship between one agency person and one landowner. Many of the dollars will flow through more expansive partnerships involving many perspectives that share common goals. NRCS, after many years of shrinking staffing levels, recently accepted applications for hundreds of entry-level positions including 75 in Texas alone. Other entities that partner with NRCS to deliver conservation program dollars and other federal entities that were appropriated dollars for voluntary conservation partnerships will also be hiring staff. They’ll also be developing relationships with others that have the capacity, and perhaps more importantly, the existing connections to deliver on this massive conservation investment.

All of this is against a backdrop of many, if not most, industries struggling to find trained workers. It is amazing, with all the financial uncertainty, that you still hear from people across industries about the challenges of hiring and retaining the staff they need. Conservation is in even more of a pickle, with almost no pre-employment training in the art of voluntary conservation available at the university level. The quality of biologic, technical, and scientific training, as well as the technology available, are all improving each year. However, training in the relationship and partners skills necessary to get information, technology, and dollars to the ground is still on the launching pad (outside of a few agencies and organizations that make it a priority for their staff).

Getting new employees hired, trained in agency policies, procedures, and specific technology will take quite some time. Getting new employees trained in relationship building will likely take much longer, particularly as organizations continue to lose their best “conservation art” mentors and coaches to retirement. The responsibility of ensuring that these billions of dollars are leveraged to achieve the best conservation outcomes will fall heavily on the people, partnerships, and relationships that are on the ground today, given the federal timelines for spending funds.

When Dickens wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he could have been writing about the conservation opportunities and challenges we are facing today. Hopefully, in 2030 we will have forgotten the front end challenges, but we’ll still be celebrating how our national working landscapes benefitted from this investment.