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Association dissolves; Penn Soil is moving forward

Wes Ramsey

The dissolution of the Pennsylvania Association of RC&D Councils doesn’t mean Penn Soil RC&D is dissolving.

Neither does the pending retirement of Penn Soil’s executive director.

The eight-county council that includes Warren County will continue doing business.

“There are two different organizations that have very similar names,” Wes Ramsey said. “I’m involved with both of them.”

Ramsey is executive director of the local council – Penn Soil.

And, he was, until it dissolved, president of the Pennsylvania Association.

The RC&D – Resource Conservation and Development – councils were created to work locally and regionally on projects to conserve, develop, and utilize natural resources.

“Penn Soil was one of the original councils created back in 1964,” Ramsey said. “It was one of the first to be approved by USDA.”

Ramsey worked with the USDA and its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He was familiar with and to Penn Soil.

“As district conservationists in Warren, we did work for the RC&D Councils,” he said.

Ramsey put that familiarity to more direct use starting in 2004.

“I took the job in Clarion where I was the liaison between the government and the non-profit,” he said. “From 2004 until 2011, I was the person assigned by USDA to be that liaison. I could provide the technical part of the job. The non-profit handled the funding.”

Then, “in 2011, the RC&D program was eliminated from the federal budget,” he said.

That put him and the RC&Ds at crossroads.

“In 2011, when Congress defunded the program, I opted to retire from NRCS,” he said. “All those existing RC&D Councils, 375 of them, had to make their own decisions.”

They could stay in existence and continue on with their missions, but without being a part of the government. Or they could fold.

Many councils gave it up.

“Nationwide, only about one-third is still in existence and being very active,” he said.

The leaders of Penn Soil looked for some expert guidance.

“Penn Soil was on the crux of trying to make that decision of whether they could keep going as a purely public charity,” Ramsey said. “The council asked me if I would consider coming to work for them.”

He offered them a year “to see if we could make it,” he said..

One year turned to 10 and Penn Soil is still running, still supporting eight northwest Pennsylvania counties – Warren, Forest, Clarion, Venango, Lawrence, Mercer, Crawford, and Erie.

“Here we are in 2021,” he said. “It’s kept me off the streets.”

“I like the work that we do,” he said. “I like seeing something good happen for the community.”

“How we operate is, people come to us for requests for projects,” Ramsey said. “We provide technical and financial assistance for community groups that would like to do projects but they’re missing something… the manpower to carry it out or the funding to do the work. What we try to do is provide the tools that can make something go.”

“There are four main areas that we are interested in,” he said. “Agriculture, forestry conservation, water quality, and community development” as it relates to conservation or natural resources.”

“We get requests from different groups… that provide public benefit,” he said. “We provide technical assistance – typically working with me to help develop the project.”

He might be able to help a group determine about how much a project would cost and how to find the money for it.

“We can help them with fund-raising, applying for grants,” he said. “Penn Soil is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and we have the ability to apply for grant funding from any source.”

“We’ve been pretty successful at it over the years,” he said. “We’ve averaged $300,000 to $400,000 a year that we’ve been able to secure and turn into projects.”

Locally, Penn Soil helped with the bird viewing platform at Big Bend, and the boat launch improvements there. Recently, Penn Soil participated in a trail project on the North Country Connector Trail near Chapman State Park.

“We do serve as the fiscal agent for a number of groups here in the county – Winterfest, the Toy Shoppe, Allegheny Outdoor Club,” he said. “We manage their funding and purchase the supplies that they need.”

It’s good work and Ramsey has enjoyed it.

But, after 37 years with USDA and 10 part-time with Penn Soil, he is ready for a new chapter.

“I’m getting to the point where I want to spend a little bit more time on the road in my RV,” he said. “I would like retire near the end of 2021.”

“I’m working with my council board of directors,” he said. “We’re going through exercises to talk about what we’re going to do as an organization… talking about the strategy beyond the end of this year.”

“My hope is they can find a way to hire a replacement,” Ramsey said. “I’ve submitted a grant to allow me to do some on-the-job training and mentoring.”

The job requirements include working with people and finding money. “It’s networking.. the ability to work with a diverse group of partners,” he said. And “the ability to write grants, make a good case for why something needs to happen, and being able to manage the grant and do reports.”

“I always referred to RC&D as one of the best-kept secrets around,” Ramsey said. “Our logo represents a cog in the middle of a machine. We’re hidden.”

“I’m doing what I can to make sure that it goes on beyond 2021,” he said. “It’s a good tool for the community. We’ve worked with a lot of people over the years.”

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