National Experience, Former NRCS Chief comes to Wyoming’s TNC
Lander – After spending time growing up and attending college in the West and moving to Washington, D.C. to work in the Senate, Department of Agriculture and then the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), serving two-and-a-half years as Chief, Arlen Lancaster is now back in the West, working in Lander with The Nature Conservancy (TNC).
During his time in the nation’s Capital, he worked for Senators from Utah and Idaho, the Senate Agriculture Committee and was appointed by then-President Bush to positions at the Department of Agriculture, which culminated in serving as Chief of the NRCS. As a result, Lancaster had a hand in setting and influencing national farm, forest and natural resource policies for more than a decade. Throughout that time he was thinking of home.
“I left Utah to try to make a contribution in D.C., but my heart never left the West. There is something about wide, open spaces that gives you perspective,” says Lancaster in talking about how he ended in Wyoming. “Living in Wyoming and working for a conservation organization that recognizes people are as important as places is a great fit.”
As Conservation Initiatives Director, Lancaster has spent his three months in the state traveling and forming relationships. He has also been volunteering his knowledge and experience to groups that he feels make a real difference for conservation, such as Conservation Districts.
According to TNC, Lancaster will lead statewide conservation initiatives for the Wyoming chapter to help shape the organization’s overall strategic direction. He will work with a diverse group of stakeholders to develop conservation goals and implement projects that seek to protect Wyoming’s most valuable natural resources, and will also oversee management and stewardship of the Conservancy in Wyoming’s five preserves and ranches, as well as conservation planning, applied research and other technical expertise.
“Not many folks are as fortunate as we are to have a past NRCS Chief sitting at our boardroom table,” says Jeri Trebelcock, Executive Director of the Popo Agie Conservation District, of which Lancaster is now a part. “It’s pretty exciting, and we look forward to tapping his wisdom, experience and insight to further our goals.”
To date, Lancaster has attended two conservation district board meetings as a volunteer. “His wisdom will be valuable to the community and our conservation efforts. On a national level he’s experienced so many things he can bring to the local level, like new ideas, partnering opportunities and programs,” says Trebelcock.
“Our interests are better served with you on the land than off it,” says Lancaster, speaking of Wyoming’s ranching and farming communities. “If we want to protect our grasslands, we need to protect the ranches that steward our natural resources and keep these lands intact.”
Of protecting grasslands, Lancaster says some groups’ opinions are to make all lands national parks, eliminating all grazing and livestock. “But that ignores how those grasslands developed, with the bison and wildlife,” he notes.
On the other hand, he says some ranchers could have shortsighted goals that lead to overgrazing. “Both have a valid perspective, from where they’re at. The rancher wants to make a living, and the other wants to preserve nature. In that situation, it’s a zero sum game – each person wants it all,” he says.
Lancaster says the answer is recognizing it can be win-win. Economic uses of the land can lead to strong production and strong conservation, and a good management system will still put weight on cattle, but won’t overgraze the land. “If you overgraze, eventually you’ll end up with no grass. If you lock it up, there will be dead grasses in a short time.”
“We need to get folks to care about protecting the grasslands while continuing to have a sustainable operation so they can continue to live and work on the land. There’s not a lot of distance between those goals,” he continues. “I do think that the more we bring people together to talk about solutions, the more we’ll find common ground.”
Lancaster commends Wyoming for its conservation efforts. “There’s such a high stewardship ethic in the state. If we get people around the table with a lot of knowledge and a lot of love for the land, you’ll see good results like the work of conservation districts and the Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust.”
One of Lancaster’s main efforts while with NRCS was to keep technical assistance available, as much as possible, and he says that remains his focus with TNC.
“One thing I want to continue to do is find ways to help get conservation on the ground,” says Lancaster. “Landowners and land managers will do the right thing by the land if they have the right information and the right tools.”
Lancaster says he hopes his position with TNC will help to identify the policies and tools to enable that on-the-ground work. “I may not be good at very many things, but I’m a guy who will show up, work hard and try to find real solutions,” he says.
Trebelcock notes, “Arlen really wants to be a part of the community, and we welcome him with open arms, especially as a conservation district.”
Lancaster says he looks forward to visiting with more Wyoming conservationists at the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts annual meeting in Worland in mid-November.