At 6’6”, Ken Lair is a gentle giant of conservation. Shaking off injuries and setbacks that would have stopped a lesser man, Lair volunteers his expertise to lead several projects for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Lair, who holds a doctorate in restoration ecology, spent the majority of his federal career with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation and NRCS. After retiring, Lair continued to work with NRCS in California as a consultant.
There he proposed several conservation field trials, which are experiments designed to increase knowledge about plants and related conservation measures; two were selected for NRCS funding to combine with local sponsor funding, with Lair as lead scientist. When funding ran out for his position, Lair volunteered through NRCS Earth Team to see the 2-year trials to completion.
One of Lair’s field trials is the Big Pine project, designed to help Native Americans, specifically the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, grow what they refer to as Nahavita – Dichelostemma capitatum, or bluedick – a native plant that historically provided an important starch source in their diet. If successful, this nutritious, culturally significant crop will be restored to the tribes of California. Lair devotes significant time and travel to oversee this project, driving 4 hours each way to reach the site.
Unfortunately, a long commute is the least of Lair’s challenges. While he was leading field trials in eastern California, his mother fell terminally ill. For 4 months he stayed by her side in Arkansas, supporting the Nahavita project remotely. After she passed away in September 2012, Lair rejoined the field trial despite his own escalating medical issues. Then a series of medical problems culminated with Lair having back surgery and his leg amputated just below the knee.
But even these life-changing procedures didn’t shake Lair’s commitment to conservation. He now uses a prosthetic foot very effectively to reach the field, where he continues to help plan and design, seed, plant, maintain and monitor the field trials.
According to Jackie Lindgren, who is an employee of the organization Mojave Desert Resource Conservation District, a partner organization on the Nahavita project, Lair is not only a hard worker, but also a natural educator.
“He always explains the work to our student volunteers,” she says. “He puts it in context so it’s more meaningful than just planting seedlings or pulling weeds.”
“Ken is a great guy,” Lindgren says, expressing the sentiment of many. “A great guy to work with and a great guy to work for.”
NRCS is proud to award Ken Lair the 2013 National Individual Earth Team Volunteer Award. Thank you, Ken!
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Check out other conservation-related stories on the USDA blog.