Director – Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
As the Executive Director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), Carter Smith oversees 3,100 professionals across 11 divisions. In this role, he has been a significant proponent of the Texas Children in Nature initiative, created in 2010 to combat the disconnect between children and the natural world. Smith helped form public-private partnerships uniting natural resource agencies with the non-profit, health, education and business communities. Thanks to Smith and TPWD, the initiative is today comprised of nearly 400 partner organizations across the state that annually help 4 million kids get outside to play, learn and grow in nature. Additionally, Smith has developed a longstanding partnership with the Texas Conservation Corps at American YouthWorks to connect youth with conservation work on TPWD lands. Under his tenure, a dedicated year-round trail crew was created to engage Corpsmembers in full-time trail building and maintenance in parks across the state. Smith has also leveraged private funding to involve additional crews in wildfire recovery and restoration work.
Q&A with Carter Smith
Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get started in conservation and preservation?
I grew up with one foot in the city and one foot in the country and always thought I had the best of both worlds in terms of exposure to recreation and conservation issues in both rural and urban settings. My family farmed and ranched in central and south Texas, so I spent much of my youth outdoors working, hunting, fishing, and playing, as did most all of my friends. That interest in conservation was undoubtedly influenced by my parents and grandparents, who were strongly connected to and interested in the land, wildlife, and nature. I was first inspired to think about a career in conservation by a state wildlife biologist and game warden. Both men were consummate professionals and teachers, and it was obvious to me, even at a young age, how much they loved what they did for a living. Ultimately, I elected to pursue a degree in wildlife biology in college, and after a series of technician related jobs assisting with research projects involving desert mule deer and pronghorn antelope, I was forever hooked.
How did you become involved with the 21 CSC/with Service and Conservation Corps?
I had my first exposure to the Service and Conservation Corps through my friend Parc Smith, the director of American Youthworks and the Texas Conservation Corps. Parc approached me about them partnering with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to help build trails on various state parks. Money at the time was tight, but the demand and needs were huge, so we figured out a way to get started. We launched a series of relatively small trail building projects at select state parks around Texas, and Parc and his eminently capable and motivated team of budding professionals vastly exceeded our expectations. Today, the Texas Conservation Corps has full time crews working all across our state parks system on projects ranging from habitat restoration to invasive species control to trail and bridge building to disaster response and a whole lot more. Looking ahead, we have great ambitions for additional projects involving larger capital infrastructure projects, as well as restoration projects helping to mitigate long term impacts from the Deepwater Horizon spill. All of these initiatives are being developed with an eye to engaging and developing the next generation of land and water stewards.
What advice would you offer to resource management agency units and nonprofits interested in partnering with 21CSC programs?
First, get familiar with the programs and services that your area Conservation and Service Corps offers. They are undoubtedly offering something that you need, whether one is working for a federal, state, local, or non-profit entity. The quality of work is exceptional. The fee for services is inherently affordable and competitive. The young professionals and their supervisors are talented, motivated, and deeply committed to what they do. And, it is a great opportunity to identify new talent and prospective employees for one’s agency. I simply can’t say enough good about them and what they do.
What advice do you offer to young people in 21CSC programs who are interested in careers in preservation and land/water management?
I have a couple of guiding principles that have served me well and which I have always imparted to others seeking advice about whether to pursue a career in conservation. At the top of the list is a reminder that the work we get to do in this realm is measured in generational terms and benefits, not large paychecks. For the most part, our proverbial paychecks come in the forms of pretty sunrises and pretty sunsets, along with a deep satisfaction in giving back to the lands and waters and communities of our Home Ground. If ever there was a vocation that planted trees so that others could enjoy shade, this field is it. Second, whatever you are out there looking for is also out there looking for you. Don’t settle and be persistent following your ambitions and desires to work in conservation. Last, but not least, find an experienced mentor or mentors who you trust, look up to, and have confidence in. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, advice, and counsel. Pursue and engage with networks of other experienced professionals who can assist you in identifying, recommending, and vetting job opportunities that may be of interest to you. All of us have been given a helping hand along the way and “giving back” to the next generation of conservation leaders is something most of us take great pride and pleasure in doing.
What drives you to support the 21CSC and youth engagement on public lands?
What I have appreciated most about our partnership with American Youthworks and the Texas Conservation Corps is the tangible nature of their contributions. As a body, the Conservation Corps are all action, and the fruits of their work and contributions on State Parks are readily apparent for everyone to see. Not only can they mobilize quickly, but they get things done right. New hiking trails and bridges. Erosion control structures. Restored habitats–More wildlife. Fewer invasive species–More native plants. All of these things take dedicated, committed, talented professionals to accomplish. And, the CSC Programs accomplish these kinds of projects in very timely, affordable, and high quality ways. In addition, the Conservation Corps attracts a very diverse, inclusive, and talented demographic of young people interested in conservation and environmental careers. As such, they are a great fit for prospective jobs within our agency. Suffice to say, we get our investment back many times over.
What do you see as the future of Service and Conservation Corps?
I have always thought of the Service and Conservation Corps in the same positive light of the historic Civilian Conservation Corps that were responsible for building and developing many of the state and national parks across the United States. They are just a contemporary version of them, bringing the same kinds of high quality projects, innovations, and contributions to these extraordinary public places and landscapes across America. Today’s Corps members are the stewards of tomorrow. They bring talent, motivation, and a bright, bright future to the conservation arena. Their land and work ethic gives me great hope about our future and the collective heritage we will pass along to future generations.