How I Got Into Conservation: A Lifelong Journey

Note: John Stierna recently received the prestigious Norman A. Berg Conservation Legacy Award, given by the National Capital Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) to individuals who have made outstanding contributions in advocating the conservation of soil, water and related natural resources, and whose service and accomplishments have made widely recognized contributions to the development of leading edge technologies that serve conservation at any geographic area, while working in the Washington, D.C., area.

Minnesota Farmstead 1995

Minnesota Farmstead 1995

As a boy, I always loved my family’s farm: the outdoors, the fields of hay and oats, the woods, and the gentle stream that flowed across the farm and emptied into Grave Lake in Minnesota’s Itasca County. The farm work, while strenuous, was still fun to a lad in his teens. We were fortunate. We never had the dust storms they had out in the west. Nor did we have very much visible sheet or rill erosion since many fields were planted to alfalfa or clover. Even the oats or wheat helped provide ground cover after sprouting—thus reducing the impact of rain. However, the manure from our dairy cattle clearly provided a risk of runoff that could have adverse effects on the stream and the lake. I started to get the feeling that we could do something more to protect the stream and lake, but I also felt that any effect from our one farm would be minimal since few other working farms were in our immediate area.

John with Oliver 1995

John Stierna (left) with Uncle Oilver Juntunen (right) 1995

After college and graduate school, I became engaged in private sector research and then water policy for the National Water Commission – work that me closer to policy aspects of both water quality and water quantity. When I joined the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly the Soil Conservation Service) I quickly realized that the collective impact of millions of farms on the environment would be substantial over the longer term, yet any adoption of conservation practices would be on a much more localized basis—farm by farm. A real need existed to have tools to influence private landusers to adopt measures that could protect the land and waters on site and those beyond the farm boundaries. The economic evaluations often showed the need for some incentives to offset costs to help producers install suitable conservation systems.

Over the years, I was able to become more and more engaged in policy analysis that has helped bring forward some of the conservation policies and programs to make that happen. From early work on the Resources Conservation Act activity when Norm Berg was Chief of the old SCS, to later work on the Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Conservation Security Program and the conservation title of several Farm Bills— these efforts all added to the suite of programs that can assist farmers and ranchers in addressing resource concerns on their farms and better protect the landscape.

Wow. This was a far cry different than the ideas I had as a lad on the farm. But sometimes it takes many years to evolve thought and concerns into workable policies and programs. Persistence over time is something that both Norm Berg and I have shared during our careers. Norm, who played a critical role in the beginning of agricultural conservation in the United States, was a committed conservationist throughout his life. I feel honored to have worked with such a distinguished professional as Norm.


John StiernaAbout the Author: Stierna has more than 45 years of experience in natural resources and agriculture as an economist and policy analyst in both the public and private sectors. He has provided significant leadership for economic analysis, policy formation and legislative analysis during his career with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Washington, D.C., and he now serves as a natural resource policy consultant for American Farmland Trust

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