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NRCS Earth Team: Making a Difference on OR Farms, Ranches

PHOTO: NRCS Earth Team volunteer Shawn McKay (front) talks with a rancher in Union County about options to redevelop a livestock watering system and help protect a stream that provides important salmon habitat. Photo courtesy National Resources Conservation Service.
PHOTO: NRCS Earth Team volunteer Shawn McKay (front) talks with a rancher in Union County about options to redevelop a livestock watering system and help protect a stream that provides important salmon habitat. Photo courtesy National Resources Conservation Service.
April 22, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. - On this Earth Day, farms and ranches across Oregon are getting land and wildlife conservation ideas and assistance from a group known as the Earth Team.

It's the Natural Resources Conservation Service volunteer organization, made up of 15 people in Oregon who put in about 1,200 hours a year. They do research, give presentations on soil health and help with wetlands and grazing-management projects.

As he was finishing college at Oregon State University, Shawn McKay said, he joined the NRCS Earth Team to put his range-management skills to the test.

"The work that we're doing on the ground today is going to be here for generations," he said. "We're really trying to protect the landscape for not just our uses today but the next hundred years."

McKay worked with a rancher in Union County to make a grazing-management plan that would conserve water and protect fish and wildlife habitat on 7,000 acres.

The Earth Team was created in 1985 and includes about 25,000 volunteers nationwide. Tracy Robillard, public affairs specialist for the NRCS in Oregon, said Earth Team members range in age from teens to active retirees. What they have in common is a desire to make a difference for the environment.

"You don't have to have an ag background to volunteer with the Earth Team," she said. "A lot of the time, we just need someone with good communication skills, someone who's got a good work ethic and attitude and likes to work with people, because that's so much about what we do, is working with landowners."

McKay said his volunteer gig helped him land his current position as a rangeland specialist with the Malheur County Soil and Water Conservation District. He wanted work experience when he joined the Earth Team - and said he'd recommend it to others.

"It was everything I had hoped for and much more," he said. "The opportunities that were associated with that volunteering far outweighed the dollar value of those hours."

Nationally, Earth Team service saved the NRCS more than $7 million in 2014.

Information about the Earth Team is online at nrcs.usda.gov and at 888-526-3227.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR