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Leader of the Pack: Conservationist reflects

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Sept. 6, 2012 - Salvador Salinas was appointed State Conservationist for the state of Texas at a time when it looked like there wouldn't be much of the state left to conserve after a long summer of record heat, drought and wildfires.

Salinas works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a non-regulatory agency that works with landowners to improve soil, water and other natural resources. The NRCS and its predecessors have been dealing with drought and land degradation since the 1930s when the U.S. Soil Conservation Service was established as a response to the Dust Bowl.

As the state conservationist, Salinas oversees more than 700 NRCS employees and 216 field offices in the state. He grew up on the family's ranch in South Texas, which has been in his family since the days of the Spanish land grants, and graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in soil science. He has worked in a variety of roles not only in Texas but in Mexico, Massachusetts and elsewhere. He was the state's deputy state conservationist prior to being named to the top spot in April of last year, just as the drought kicked into high gear.

He wasn't around for the Dust Bowl, but he said the natural disasters of the last couple of years harkens back to those days.

"If you compare the Midwest of the Dust Bowl days to today, you can see that we've made a significant amount of improvement," Salinas said recently at his office in Temple. "Last year we saw a couple of big dust storms around Lubbock, but those occurrences are few and far between, even in a year like last year. I think it's a testament to the vision and foresight of the conservationists of that time who helped the country address those issues."

NRCS partners with other agencies such as the local soil and water conservation districts, the state soil and water conservation board, livestock associations, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Texas Wildlife Association and others on conservation issues. The agency also implements federal farm bill programs on the state level. The popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) as well as the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), and the Grassland Reserve and Wetlands Reserve programs are some of the programs they help implement statewide.

The fate of those programs and of NRCS in Texas and the rest of the country rests in large measure on what provisions and appropriations are approved for the agency in the new farm bill. The Senate has passed its version of the bill. The House Agriculture Committee has passed its version, but it has not been taken up by the house. Salinas said the agency could be looking at reduced employee numbers and possibly the closing of some county offices, as has already happened to Farm Service Agency (FSA) and USDA Rural Development offices.

"As an agency we are looking at the field office of the future," Salinas said. "We have to look for ways to be more efficient. Our main mission is get technical assistance directly to the landowner. The question is how do we increase the time we spend with landowners -- increase the amount of one-on-one time we have with them - and do that with reduced budgets and reduced staffing?"

The farm bill passed by the Senate is, Salinas said, very conservation oriented. Some programs, such as EQIP and WHIP have been consolidated into one program as have three easement and wildlife programs. "The hits could have been a lot worse," he said. "The Senate bill still has conservation as a priority."

The exact nature of the farm-bill-to-be is hard to predict now, but the natural resource concerns the state faces in the future are clear. Salinas said that water quality and water quantity are at the top of the list along with a wide range of land issues, from grazing lands for livestock to habitat for wildlife to species of concern such as the longleaf pine, lesser prairie chicken and bobwhite quail.

Many of those concerns spread across state lines Conservation practices to conserve the Ogallala Aquifer stretch from the Texas Panhandle almost to Canada. The longleaf pine is threatened not just in East Texas but over most of the Southeast. Lesser prairie chicken and bobwhite quail habitat also extends into several states.

"That requires a whole system approach," Salinas said. "It means looking at a particular piece of land as part of a much larger picture."

He said the fact that NRCS is non-regulatory has always worked to the agency's advantage.

"We offer our services as a way to address a problem and move forward. The landowner isn't forced to do something," he said. "Our ultimate goal is to help keep all of our natural resources from being listed as threatened or impaired. If we can help keep something from being listed in the first place, that's a big plus for landowners."


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