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News Release

NRCS Says Farewell to Illinois State Conservation Leader

Paige Buck, State Public Affairs Specialist
(217) 353-6606


William J. GradleChampaign, IL--In January 1997, Illinois welcomed back William (Bill) Gradle to his home state to accept and serve in the top position for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Gradle became Illinois 9th State Conservationist and held that position for 15 years. On December 31st, 2011, Gradle stepped down from this role and officially retired with 34 years of federal government service. On January 7th, friends, family, and colleagues gathered to celebrate Gradle’s retirement.

“We at NRCS and within the ag community will miss Bill’s leadership and guidance,” says Acting State Conservationist Ivan Dozier who has worked alongside Gradle at the Champaign-based State Office facility for 8 years. According to Dozier, Gradle always supported his staff. He respected agriculture and its role in Illinois’ economy, but equally valued the state’s land and soil resources. “Bill supported locally initiated priorities and he worked well with state partners,“ adds Dozier. “He found the best way to meet ag realities with ecologically sustainable solutions.”

When Gradle accepted the top job, his family relocated here from California’s Central Coast. He grew up in Westmont, Illinois, a western Chicago suburb. As a University of Illinois graduate and Alumni, Bill’s return was a perfect fit�both for his family and the conservation-minded agency born in the Dust Bowl Days.

Back in 1997, the former Soil Conservation Service (SCS) agency had just changed its name to NRCS to reflect a broader and more holistic role in natural resource protection on agricultural private lands�it was no longer just about soil. It was about water, plants, wildlife, and now air and energy. More far-reaching changes lay ahead. Over the next 15 years Gradle, NRCS, and farmers statewide experienced a litany of changes, new issues, technological advances, state and federal policies, and much more.

The rate of these changes and advances made in agriculture, agronomy, and precision farming during Gradle’s tenure was absolutely unprecedented. Here are just a few changes and challenges Gradle wrestled with during his Illinois service:

  • Impacts and details associated with managing NRCS programs within three separate Farm Bills�1996, 2002, and 2008�and the addition of financial assistance programs in 2003.
  • Changing priorities and staff for four Presidential Administrations.
  • Ever-changing agendas and expectations of five USDA Secretary of Agriculture appointees as well as five NRCS Chiefs.

With a degree in Forestry and more almost two decades of hands-on experience with private landowners in New Mexico and California, Bill’s return to Illinois brought with it a vision to improve our state’s valuable woodland resources. And when the state property tax issues reared up as a serious concern, Bill saw an opportunity to align NRCS’ Forestry Initiative in a way to help agriculture, help landowners, and improve Illinois forests. Ultimately, this stabilized IDNR’s Division of Forestry and spurred growth in the state’s private consulting foresters industry. Gradle was also one of the key players in bringing people and resources to the 2005 Illinois Forestry Summit through his position on the Illinois Forestry Development Council, which blossomed into a new organization, the �voice of Illinois forests’, the Illinois Forestry Association.

Over 15 years Gradle successfully collaborated with diverse ag partners, most of whom became members of the Illinois State Technical Committee�local leaders and decision makers who help guide conservation priorities. Key partners included leaders and staff for the Illinois Department of Ag, Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts and its 97 individual Districts, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Land Improvement Contractors Association, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Pork Producers and Beef Association, Farm Bureau, Conservation Technology Information Center, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wild Turkey Federation, University of Illinois Deans and departments, Extension, Federal and State Legislators, and four different Governors, all with their own familiarity or perceived value of agriculture.

Toss in a few floods, a drought, the arrival of The Internet, and development and use of digital and soil and mapping technology, digital photography, GPS and electronic engineering tools�all which directly and indirectly impact ag and the foundational tools and data SCS/NRCS has used since 1935.

Consider too all the Farm Bill legislation and the growing complexity of different programs, options and compliance-based management decisions required by private landowners. Think of all the program acronyms and continual computer/network upgrades needed to handle new electronic banking and payment permissions. The shift from hardcopy paperwork to electronic files and banking and payments all happened during Gradle’s career. Personal computers became main stream. All this involved a steep learning curve for staff and clients as well as training and upgrades for computer systems, servers, and electronic data storage.

All these 21st Century infrastructure upgrades are �standards’ of today. These changes happened simultaneously as agriculture and planting and harvest seasons came and went. No-till planting and residue management were born and reared over this span of time. “It was a lot to manage,” says Dozier. “But what an exciting time it was too and Mr. Gradle lead his team through all that and he did it with a calm and level-headed approach.”

According to Dozier, Gradle consistently used fair and open communication methods. He leaned on science rather than politics or popularity. He valued partners and people because he knew government agencies cannot do the job successfully without their involvement and input. Gradle always kept his focus on NRCS’ mission: Helping People Help The Land.

Illinois NRCS will appoint a new State Conservationist in the coming months. Bill’s will be big shoes to fill (although he says he wears a 10-1/2).

The NRCS staff and conservation partners would like to thank Bill Gradle for his vision, his steady and dedicated pursuit to balance agricultural production and natural resource protection. Our agency, our land is indeed better for all he gave of his time, skills, and his heart.


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