AGRICULTURE:

Summer ranch job shaped career path for USDA's new conservation chief

Jason Weller caught the conservation bug as he worked a summer job at a small Montana ranch in the mid-1990s.

The Northern California native moved cattle, fixed fences, stacked hay and laid pipelines at the ranch that summer in the wake of his graduation with a bachelor's degree in international relations from Minnesota's Carleton College.

"Hands down, I learned more in that summer about myself as an individual, about the rural way of life, about how hard those families work, and the honor of the work they do day in and day out, and about how proud they are of their families and the land," Weller recalled in a recent interview. "It really resonated with me. It was incredibly powerful."

Powerful enough to launch Weller, now 40, on a career in resources management, a path that led last week to his being picked to lead the Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Weller replaces Dave White, who's retiring from USDA after a 35-year career in the resources service.

The service, or NRCS, manages voluntary rural conservation programs and provides hands-on technical support to farmers and ranchers trying make environmental improvements on their land.

Weller has been White's chief of staff since 2009 and said that he was "really excited and also very humbled" to take over for the popular White, who's been praised by conservationists for taking a landscape-scale approach to habitat restoration and finding creative ways to make up for federal funding shortfalls.

When asked about his conservation experience, Weller begins with the story of his cattle ranching at the Larson Red Angus Ranch in Big Timber, Mont.

Weller was brought on as part of a program that ranch owner Dave Larson, a Carleton graduate himself, has run every summer since the late 1970s. Larson raises grass-fed bulls that he then sells so that others can breed cows -- "selling genetics," as he calls it.

Every summer, a couple of ranch hands are put to work "trying to raise as much grass as we can," Larson said. The work begins around 6:30 a.m. and ends around 9:30 p.m. On the daily to-do list was channeling water from the silt pack in the Crazy Mountains through man-made ditches to irrigate grass on the ranch. The water is blocked at certain points every day to flood the land.

"Water is critical to this area. We don't have any," Larson said. "We have to apply it in this artificial fashion and, in addition, the benefits that applies is not only to my agricultural operation, but it also stores water so that the wildlife and the environment in general benefits."

The main goals of Larson's ranch hand program are to help him make a living and to produce hay for the cows. But he said he also runs it to show students from liberal arts colleges how much work goes into running a ranch and to provide a balanced perspective to those critical of modern farming and ranching.

"That's the beauty of having these kids out here -- they actually can see it," Larson said. "They see that nobody gains by abusing the land. They come out here and see that I get hurt if I overgraze, just like if you cut lawn too tight. If you don't have grass, you're not going to put a lot of weight on these animals. I'm trying to make a living, and the best way to make a living is to take care of these resources."

Some are inspired to come back for a second summer, Larson said, while others, such as Weller, are inspired to think more about ranching as a career.

Weller called his work a "daily education."

"I never worked harder, but also it was so rewarding," Weller said. "And I left there after that summer really within me a great passion for Western resource issues and wanting to make a career of working ... in conservation resource management."

Washington calls

Spurred by his summer job, Weller focused on resources management while earning a master's degree in public policy in 1999 from the University of Michigan.

After grad school, Weller returned to California and worked at the California Legislative Analyst's Office, which provides advice on fiscal and policy issues to the Legislature. Weller focused on conservation issues.

"I was really excited and energized about that and about how public policy can help both public and private lands and help folks better manage the resources," Weller said.

Weller moved east to Washington, D.C., to work at the White House Office of Management and Budget just as rural conservation programs got a funding bump in the 2002 farm bill. As an OMB budget analyst, Weller worked closely with former Natural Resources Conservation Service Chiefs Bruce Knight and Arlen Lancaster on managing the new resources for the programs.

"He's incredibly smart and thoughtful and creative," said Lancaster, who is now the conservation initiatives director for the Nature Conservancy's Wyoming office. "I think what he brings to that job [as chief] is his ability to really understand everything from the 30,000-foot view to the nuts and bolts and get what he needs to get done. We were really disappointed when he left OMB."

After five years at OMB, Weller left for Capitol Hill, beginning with the House Budget Committee, where he worked as a staffer under then-Chairman and former Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) on agricultural, natural resources and energy programs. He remained there through the 2008 farm bill, and his work brought him into frequent contact with the staff of House Agriculture Committee and former Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), now ranking member on the committee.

Weller then switched to the House Appropriations Committee and was the staffer on the agriculture subcommittee responsible for the Natural Resources Conservation Service's budget. He spent a year and a half there before being called on in 2009 to serve as chief of staff for NRCS Chief White, his current position.

In an email to NRCS employees announcing his retirement last Thursday, White said he was leaving the agency in good hands.

"When I became chief, I actively recruited Jason to be the NRCS chief of staff because of his knowledge, commitment and strategic thinking skills," White wrote. "He has not disappointed. Jason has been involved in every major decision NRCS has made since 2009. His knowledge of NRCS programs, budget, structure and operations is unsurpassed."

Weller, who likes to hike, backpack and camp with his wife, Sarah, and two young daughters, Ana and Elisabeth -- and is learning to play the guitar, "with an emphasis on amateur guitar," he adds -- said it's been a "real privilege" to work with White.

As chief, White has spearheaded a shift in NRCS from what USDA officials call "random acts of conservation," in which farmers enroll for benefits without regard to how projects fit into an overall picture, to more than a dozen targeted, multi-state landscape-scale initiatives (Greenwire, March 15).

White has also pushed for putting more boots on the ground -- rather than in offices -- and for forming increased partnerships with nonprofits and state agencies to make up federal budgeting shortfalls.

"He's been a truly extraordinary leader, mentor and a friend. I've just earned so much from him," Weller said. "It's a little intimidating actually to come in behind someone who's been such a passionate advocate and spokesperson but also a visionary for private-lands conservation. I'm not dull enough not to realize that these are huge shoes that have to be filled."

'These are not rich times for NRCS'

Weller said he would continue to keep a focus on the landscape approach to conservation. He was involved in the first landscape program, the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, which focused on ecosystem recovery in seven rivers that drain to the Gulf of Mexico following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon incident.

Weller said he also worked closely with White on shaping the regulatory certainty agreement that began in the sage grouse program, which exempts farmers and ranchers from regulations tied to the Endangered Species Act if they comply with voluntary conservation measures.

The expiration of the 2012 farm bill at the end of September, though, means that Weller will be working with limited resources. While the agency has the ability to work within existing contracts and to enroll farmers in working-lands programs, the failure of Congress to pass a new farm bill means that several conservation easement programs are not accepting new applicants.

Even before the expiration of the 2008 farm bill, NRCS had been facing tightened budgets and program closures, as well as the prospect of further cuts.

"These are not rich times for NRCS. They're not flush with cash, like any other agency," said Steve Kline, agriculture director at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "They're trying to exist without clear direction in the farm bill, and I think that's going to take somebody like Jason, who's obviously incredibly well-prepared to take over that challenge."

Jim Inglis, government affairs representative at Pheasants Forever, said he's looking to Weller to continue partnerships with third parties in these tight budget times. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever employ more than 100 "farm bill biologists" in 18 states to help farmers navigate conservation programs. The biologists often work very closely with NRCS employees, sometimes sharing the same office.

Inglis said that Weller, who spoke two years ago at Pheasants Forever's annual meeting, has "always been very open to brainstorming different ideas" to extend USDA resources.

Weller said his first priority when taking over the reins next month will be making sure "that our core partners know that I'm here and that I am here to learn."

"I'm here to be a strong advocate for them but also to support them, and I want to make sure that that message gets out," Weller said, "that I'm here to listen and to be a collaborator and supporter."

Weller, who now lives in Maryland with his family, said he tries to get out to the field several times a year to stay connected with employees and farmers, though not as much as he'd like to, working in the national office.

He soon hopes to check in with the Larson ranch, which was so important to his career path.

"While I stayed in touch for several years and visited the family over the course of several years, I unfortunately have not visited them recently, but I hope to do so in the near future," Weller said. "My experiences on the ranch have been a guide stone for me throughout my career, and it will be important for me to reconnect."

Larson recalls Weller as having been one of the more inquisitive ranch hands in his 35 years or so of doing the ranch hand program.

"Some kids answer more questions than others, and you feel they're more into it," he said. "Jason was trying to ask the questions to learn."

Told that Weller would be taking over NRCS, Larson said, "I'm impressed."

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