Conservation Career, Gonzales wraps up 35 years with NRCS
Buffalo – Phil Gonzales’s early start in rangeland management began on his father’s ranch in New Mexico, where he’d tag along with local Soil Conservation Service (SCS) staff as they worked on the ranch’s conservation contract.
On May 31 Gonzales will wrap up a 35-year career as a rangeland specialist with the agency, now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
“There were 10 kids in the family, so my dad had to work, and he’d send me out with the SCS people, and they’d come pick me up because I was just a kid and I’d go spend the whole day with them,” says Gonzales. “They were writing contracts and doing range mapping and fence layout and well and reservoir locations. I thought it was a cool job, and that’s how I got my interest.”
Gonzales would later attend New Mexico State University, earning a degree in range science with a focus in defoliation of vegetation – or how plants respond when their leaves are removed.
“I started with SCS when I was in school, so my career really started when I was in college. I first came to Wyoming as a student, where I worked six months and went to school six months,” he explains.
“Then I interviewed for a job, and they gave me a whole list of states, and Wyoming was last on the list, and when I said I’d go to Wyoming they tried to talk me out of it,” says Gonzales. “But I thought it would be kind of fun, so I came to Wyoming in 1976 and loved it.”
Gonzales’s time in the state began in Lusk, working for today’s Wyoming Livestock Board Director Jim Schwartz, after which he moved around to Evanston, Buffalo, Cheyenne and Torrington before landing back in Buffalo and northeast Wyoming as a range specialist for the Powder River drainage.
“My first impression of Wyoming was the wide-open spaces,” he says. “It wasn’t what I envisioned. Where I grew up there were a lot of trees, so we’d cut them down and get rid of them, and I thought the farther north you went the more trees there would be, but Wyoming is high plains and desert and open landscape, and it grows on a person really quick – the open landscape, vistas and lifestyle.”
Gonzales says his entire career with NRCS has been spent working with agriculture. “Some families and ranches have been here a long time, and that’s what’s nice, because in some areas it still is today what it always has been. Wyoming offers a history from prehistoric to historic to present-day, and there have been a lot of uses and things on the land. Some places in Wyoming haven’t had a lot of change since the wooly mammoths were down here from the north country.”
Of the challenges involved in his job through the years, he says the producers provide them. “Their resource concerns and the political issues they deal with bring those forward,” says Gonzales. “NRCS is truly the organization that works for private landowners. What they bring forward requires us to stay abreast of current technology to work with them to address the resource concerns and needs.”
Gonzales says sage grouse are his favorite project, because for the last 30 years he’s worked as a rangeland management specialist and has been able to see the long-term positive results in managing sage grouse habitat.
“We’ve been able to show that through grassland management we can benefit sage grouse and have outreaching benefits for other obligates on the land,” he explains, noting those include song birds, big game and watershed management as a whole.
Gonzales says as far as his short-term plans after retirement, he doesn’t have a whole lot planned, apart from a sheep hunt with two of his buddies this fall; all three of them drew tags.
“My professional goal would be to start working with producers on rangeland management and sage grouse issues,” he says. “My belief is this whole sage grouse issue is far from going away, and if we’re truly going to help we need to focus on it.”
“The thing about Wyoming is it offers a lot of challenges,” says Gonzales of his career in the Cowboy State. “I’ve had the opportunity through NRCS to foster knowledge and be able to find the answers.”
He adds his experience with NRCS has also taught him what not to do in some cases. “The landowners are the ones that give us that experience. They’re willing to work with us, and not criticize, and they’re the ones at risk,” he comments. “Every time when we’re working, the overall bottom line is their bottom line, so we have to be careful we don’t affect that. The whole goal is keeping landowners on the land, otherwise it will turn into condos.”
“Now I’ve lived in Wyoming longer than I lived in New Mexico, and I call Wyoming home,” says Gonzales. “Wyoming offers the quality of life, and that’s what I like. Not many people get to enjoy this.”
However, he says he didn’t enjoy the wind at Cheyenne and about quit his job the second time he lost his hat. “The first one I chalked up to inexperience, but when I lost the second hat I called the boss and told him I was going home because I couldn’t live someplace where I couldn’t keep a hat on. Other than that, it’s been alright.”
Looking into the future of the agency and rangeland management, Gonzales sees the biggest challenge as keeping landowners on the land.
“We need to keep landowners on the land. Most of them, the land is their retirement, and if they sell we all lose,” he says. “If landowners leave the land, it’s usually split up somehow. The Farmland Protection Program is the role of NRCS in keeping the landowners, and the Grazing Reserve Program. We as a society need to work with landowners, because if we keep losing them we keep losing those things we enjoy the most – the wildlife, vistas and air and water quality.”
Christy Hemken is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.