What a difference a week makes!

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

If I have any theme this week, it’s that life has been a mixture of big and little things, of local and distant things…and all are things I care about. Most weeks, I don’t have much trouble separating issues into my circle of control (those things I can actually control), my circle of influence (things I can’t control but may be able to influence), and my circle of concern (things I can’t control or influence but nevertheless are of concern to me). One key to remaining sane and effective is to focus my energy on what I can control and influence.

The ideal structure of those circles is like a target with the circle of control in the center, surrounded by the circle of influence, which is in turn surrounded by the larger circle of concern. But this week, it’s been more like a bad Venn diagram with the circles being misshapen oblongs that intersect in odd and disturbing ways!

This week, my column is really more of a random walk through my head than a cohesive essay on a single point. I do much of my thinking while I drive to and fro, and I often capture those fleeting thoughts on a digital recorder. Driving time is thinking time for me, so I am very much looking forward to getting some behind-the-wheel time this summer as we resume making some in-person visits to conservation districts.

Usually, I dive into just one or two items that are top-of-mind for me that week. This week I’m pulling back the curtain and exposing the mass of messy thoughts filling my heart and head.

Carol Smith to retire

At this time last week, I had no idea that Dr. Carol Smith, Executive Director of the Washington State Conservation Commission, would announce her retirement. She’ll scale back her activities this fall and be fully retired by December 31, 2021.

This news came as a complete and heartbreaking shock to me. I was blessed to work with Carol during my 13 years with the Commission. She brought deep capacity and a scientific approach to some key projects that served conservation districts across the State of Washington. I had hoped to cap my conservation career by serving alongside Carol. The sense of heartbreak I felt when I heard her announcement is purely selfish because I have enjoyed being a close teammate. We have a sense of trust and confidence in each other that comes from working together for several years. I hate to lose that but I respect and honor her choice to focus on a different chapter in her life.

Oregon’s Bootleg fire becomes third largest in state history

I think that I am beginning to view the start of the full-on fire season not by when the first fires appear on the landscape, but by how quickly they “blow up” into major conflagrations. Thus, it was an unwelcome surprise to watch the news over the past several days as the southern Oregon fire known as the Bootleg Fire erupted into an event that has only been surpassed by two other wildfires in the history of the State of Oregon. Some of my friends in southern Oregon and northern California are affected.

I don’t see a single solution. What I can begin to visualize is an entire realm of changes that could influence future wildfire behavior. But change is scary so it takes a long time for people to actualize the necessary new behaviors. Also factoring into this is the effect of an individual’s actions as compared to those of a community. A corollary could be riparian restoration where if one person does it on their stream reach, it provides some benefit, but if everyone on the reach does it, it provides exponentially more benefit.

WACD Annual Conference planning

It is that time of year again when WACD staff buckle down on planning for the WACD statewide annual conference. We will be finalizing a basic schedule in the next few weeks. We will also be reaching out to members for help on an annual conference planning workgroup, aka the annual conference planning committee.

Right now, the rough schedule looks like this:

  • November: hold virtual sessions throughout the month. I am envisioning some sessions held during normal work days and some in the evenings or on weekends. Timing will depend on the primary audience for a particular topic.
  • November 29 (Monday): a no-cost banquet at the Hotel Murano for folks who register to attend the WACD annual business meeting, plus a possible WACD Board of Directors meeting date.
  • November 30 (Tuesday): WACD annual business meeting, held in person at the Hotel Murano.
  • December 1 (Wednesday): This is an alternate WACD Board of Directors meeting date, plus there is a possibility of an in-person workshop or field project tours.
  • December 2 (Thursday): Washington State Conservation Commission meeting.

The banquet is optional, as is the Wednesday workshop or field day. Tuesday is the business meeting and we hope that a free banquet will pull members to Tacoma on Monday.

We have heard from many folks that they desperately want some in-person time together, so the major thrust of the Monday banquet is socializing and networking. There could be some dinner presentations but we’ll focus more on providing unfettered time to visit with friends and renew the ties that bring us strength and joy.

NASCA webinar on recruiting minority candidates for conservation positions

On Tuesday morning, I participated in a national webinar on bringing minority candidates into various conservation district positions. The two hours went by quickly.

I particularly enjoyed the first presenter, Ebony Webber. Ebony is the CEO of MANRRS. MANRRS means Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences. Ebony is a very well-spoken advocate for her organization. I think she’d make a great presenter at WACD’s annual conference!

The recorded webinar will be made available on NASCA’s website. The webinar recordings are now available at: https://www.nascanet.org/nasca-webinar-recruiting-minority-candidates-to-conservation-positions/


The Tribal Relations Committee is almost like a tugboat: constant, enduring, always striving to move us forward. I greatly appreciate their long-standing commitment and their continuing work to help us bridge one of the most important gaps we have in our network of relationships.

It’s hard to believe that the Joint Committee on Elections (JCE) has met eight times! Because of my own history with conservation district elections, I was not particularly optimistic when we started this joint effort with the Conservation Commission. I clearly remember the many times I was verbally attacked when work on the elections and appointments rule started nearly 15 years ago. It’s been a long road for our community to even be able to have civil conversations about conservation district elections, and that’s because we all recognize the importance of elections and local governance. Emotions would not run hot if people didn’t care! Now that the JCE has a proposal out to conservation districts for comment, I am feeling much more optimistic about the possible outcomes.

The Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (CDEI) has met three times. At next week’s meeting, we will begin work on Resolution 2020-05. I am thrilled with our facilitators. They come from outside our community and bring an entirely different style to our work. In our work together as a committee, we are being inclusive and equitable in the processes that the committee is following. I love that because we are effectively modeling the things we are talking about and working on.

See who is on all of our committees at: https://wadistricts.us/wacd/committees/

Miscellaneous thoughts

It’s been a busy place upstairs (by which I mean: in my head).

Carol’s announcement has me thinking about when to put a cap on my own conservation career. It feels awfully strange to use the word career because when I started three decades ago, there was no clear career path with conservation districts. We really haven’t had conservation district professional employees for very long. This year, we are seeing several long-time conservation district employees transition out of our conservation family. It feels like this is a seminal moment in our history when having a career in conservation district work is not only possible but becoming commonplace. That’s a good thing.

Whenever I begin to feel like maybe I should be thinking of retiring, I look at the long history of leadership and contributions of Rich Duesterhaus. Rich is such a great inspiration to me. He has been a strong proponent of locally led conservation for much longer than I’ve been in the game. Rich currently serves as the Director of Partnerships and Programs for NACD and also as the Executive Director of the National Conservation District Employees Association. One of the things I most admire about Rich is his ability to occupy that divergent-but-complementary gray space between conservation district boards and conservation district employees. I aspire to be more like Rich, and as long as the joy continues to outweigh the pain that sometimes emerges in our work, I’ll continue to ride for our brand.

I’ve been thinking about equity and WACD dues. As we all learn more about equality and equity, it becomes clear that providing the same thing or same amount to everyone is not the same as providing what people need to succeed. There has been some persistent unhappiness about the equal dues structure that WACD members adopted in 2019; I hear it each year when we send out dues notices. There are arguments for and against this structure, but what strikes me more clearly this year is the sense of unfairness as expressed by several conservation districts. I get it. I don’t have an elegant solution but I understand. WACD’s Board of Directors tried to make dues a little more palatable this year by funding a dues reduction from gains made from investments. I doubt that this conversation is over and I welcome all points of view.

And I’ve been thinking about our area directors, about committees, about governance, and most importantly, about sustainable funding. I wish I had the magic answer to the evergreen need for sustainable funding. I don’t — at least not yet. I do think that we have historically looked for a single solution but that seems more and more unlikely to work, at least as I ponder this need. It is beginning to feel like we may need to cobble together streams of funding from multiple sources to accomplish one of our most important needs: sustainable funding for conservation districts. (I would also be concerned if we did find a single funding source that solved everyone’s problems because then we position our districts to be vulnerable to a single point of failure.)

I’ve been thinking about civility, especially so since I’ve been a little short with a few family members as we deal with our own family stresses. In the context of conservation districts, where we are now is a far cry from what I remember 30 years ago. Today, we seem more accepting of differences even while we still strive for sameness. We now seem more like a collection of individuals than a unified body of thought and action. I intend no value judgments in those statements. As a community, we got a lot done when we were more unified decades ago, but I also remember that some voices were effectively suppressed from time to time. I think we’re in a good place because we are providing more opportunities for people to express their points of view and discuss what to do, but as with anything involving more than one person, it gets messy very quickly. Thank goodness that grace and respect tend to dominate our community! I am grateful for you.

I’ve been thinking about critical race theory, aka CRT. And I think there is great harm in glomming onto a label like this and polarizing people around it, which is what I see happening now. It has become political. It seems especially repugnant to me because I deeply value one basis for founding our country: the freedom to worship and to live without excessive government control. I know I’m naive. One reality for me is that I recognize that as individuals, we do things every day that either help or harm others, either consciously or unconsciously. I prefer to focus on becoming more aware of how my choices may affect others rather than criticize how someone else chooses to act. That’s something I can own because it is entirely inside my circle of control.

And that leads me to another thread of thought I’ve been noodling about: our past, present, and future. We have a strong conservation delivery system because of the great work done by so many people who came before us. We stand on their accomplishments. They built our strong foundation. In the here and now, we have some issues (or flavors of issues) that they didn’t have to grapple with, including conservation district election reform as well as the opportunity to become more inclusive in how we operate. I observe that sometimes the very strengths that helped us build our capacity and reputation can also interfere with our ability to be nimble in the face of rapid change. The world is changing rapidly around us, and while we hang onto what has worked so well in the past, our future may move on without us. I am part of that past and I confess that I struggle sometimes to recognize that what comes next is at least as important (if not more!) than what came before. We have a bunch of new people in our community who represent our future. If we take a look just ten years down the road, many of us will be handing off leadership roles to these folks. They deserve our support because they are our future.

I’ll miss Ryan Baye while he’s in Chicago for the NACD summer meeting. That meeting is extra special because it is a return to the very place where NACD was born. I enjoy the NACD summer meeting more than the annual meeting because the schedule for NACD leadership is less scripted so there are more opportunities for direct interactions. I chose not to go because my mother is exceptionally frail. My spouse and I (mainly my spouse!) are providing live-in care as Mom’s remaining days dwindle. We want her to have the highest quality of life possible, so the idea of possibly bringing a COVID variant into the house is pretty frightening. I don’t really doubt my own ability to fight through a COVID infection but I don’t want any of my loved ones to face that specter. Ryan will probably be surprised to read that I value his voice of calm and reason in our daily work life, a perspective and style I value greatly.

I’ll close my rambling missive with a saying that has moved me to do some things I might not have otherwise done: if not me, then who? During my nine years in Oregon, the upper right corner of my large erasable board had a small box marked: “Do not erase!” Inside that box it said: “If not us, then who?” I can’t count the number of times a challenging situation was dumped in my lap and as I wondered what to do about it, that phrase seemed to become brighter and harder to ignore. It’s easy to sit around and complain about how bad or wrong something is. It’s much more difficult to stand up and do something about it. I think it is human nature to not take on every challenge presented to us. Instead, we often first look around to see who else might step up. I would not have made the jump to Oregon in 2010 if I didn’t embrace the idea of “if not me, then who?” I certainly would not have returned to Washington in 2020 to serve as your executive director if I didn’t believe in that ideal.

We are very lucky to have many people who are willing to take on big challenges, but we need more. We need people to run for conservation district boards and we need people to want the careers that conservation districts can provide. We need people to fill the leadership pipeline at WACD and with the Washington Association of District Employees. We need people to seek out NRCS careers. In other words, we need strength in all areas to be most effective. As we call out for your help, please do consider the maxim: “if not me, then who?” By the same token, when you need some help, please don’t hesitate to reach out to any of us in the Conservation Partnership. Our work depends on the great work that you do!

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director