Ask Ed Patchcoski if conservation works, and you’re likely to get an unqualified thumbs up.
The man who has served as Wyoming County’s federally designated District Conservationist since May of 1983 is stepping down at the end of this month.
Patchcoski’s love for the outdoors started in scouting, and he readily admits that unlike most of the people he initially served, he did not grow up on a farm.
With his dad a World War II veteran and mother a seamstress, Patchcoski grew up in the South Scranton/Moosic area and very much stayed close to the enduring values of family, which served him well in understanding why family farmers he would later serve stayed so close to the land.
He achieved the pinnacle of scouting by becoming an Eagle Scout in his teens, and by the early 1970s, he signed up for a Youth Conservation Corps program that essentially hooked him on the environment, and helped him see his role in helping to sustain it.
Patchcoski noted recently that he enrolled in Keystone College’s environmental science program run by Howard Jennings, and then went on to Penn State University’s main campus for a program in environmental resource management.
He said his first job was with the Lackawanna County Conservation District, and later went to Susquehanna County, then Westmoreland County in the western pat of the state before settling down in Wyoming County.
Patchcoski said he quickly learned that what had been taught from a textbook often bore little resemblance to what he faced in the field, and he realized that in order to succeed he would have to acquire some of it through a great deal of self study.
“What’s been so unique about my job is I’ve been able to work hands-on with private landowners, many of them farmers, in seeing how the soil can work for them,” Patchcoski said.
“There’s never been a dull moment, and each day presents itself with new challenges,” he added, noting that later in the day he would be visiting with a farmer who was concerned about a gas pipeline coming through that would disrupt some drain tile which had been put in years earlier so the farmer’s dad could successfully farm a field.
And, so it goes.
Although hired by the federal government initially to do a job through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service which provided technical assistance in controlling water and wind erosion of the soil, Patchcoski said that role changed in 1994 when a newly named agency - the Natural Resources Conservation Service - was directed to improve, protect, and conserve natural resources working with state and local agencies that had a similar mission.
He noted that his job was essentially still the same but rather than just deal with a landholder’s isolated problem he - and those he served - were more mindful of the impacts a single action might have on the bigger picture, usually downstream.
And, despite being paid by the government, Patchcoski said he has never seen himself as a bureaucrat, but rather as field technician ready to help facilitate what today are known as “best practices” in the areas of soil science, water quality and ecological restoration.
He readily acknowledges though that there have been moments where some farmers have seen him as an interloper, even though he says he’s really just there to help.
Patchcoski makes it clear that what he does is without regulatory power such as might be mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“There is good and bad with every project,” he said, and acknowledged that a constant across his nearly one-third of a century in Wyoming County - which is disected by the Susquehanna River and cris-crossed with creeks and streams - is flooding.
“The truth is money becomes available post-disaster,” he said, and “You’re suddenly presented with a new set of priorities with how to best manage the natural resources in front of you.”
He remembers vividly two projects he played an advisory role in and that was the rehabilitation of two former housing developments that led to municipal parks “which we enjoy today without thought of the upheavals faced just a generation earlier.”
He said lots of people go to Riverside Park and Lazybrook Park today and enjoy them for their recreational value, as they should.
Another project he likes to point to is the Kiwanis Wyoming County Fairgrounds where this past summer a very extensive effort was unveiled employing gutters placed onto seven buildings to capture rainwater into an underground reservoir. Tanks holding a combined 15,000 gallons of water, are available for non-potable use, like washing down the animals.
In the past the runoff from the various roofs often left a considerable amount of mud on the fairgrounds not to mention animal waste that got washed into nearby wetlands changing their ecological character.
Patchcoski acknowledged such projects are not cheap with initial seed money coming from private donors, including gas companies.
“The truth is we’re all in this together,” Patchcoski said, “and need to be mindful of the bigger picture.”
He said that the biggest thing he will miss when Jan. 1 rolls around is the people.
“The best part of my job is the people I’ve had the privilege to work for,” Patchcoski said.
“Conservation never sleeps. It is a 24-7 task that demands our very best.”