Growing up in rural Ohio, Leon Kot, Jr. always enjoyed working outdoors. After leaving the Army he worked for the US Army Corp of Engineers in Oklahoma. Over time he earned a B.S. in Wildlife Conservation, an M.S. in Natural Science and, eventually an Ed.D. in Science Education with the help of the GI Bill. As a Graduate Assistant at Oklahoma State University he traveled the state making conservation presentations to schools and various civic groups. After being hired by the USDA Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) in Oklahoma in 1980, he received his doctorate in 1984. In Grady County he was trained by Soil Conservation Technicians to conduct field surveys and other aspects of conservation planning and practice installation. That was the beginning of a lifelong conservation planning career for Leon. In his 30+ years with the USDA, Leon became proficient at developing cropland, rangeland, pastureland, urban and forestry conservation plans.
After Leon moved to the Teller County area of Colorado, he was involved with fire rehabilitation contracts through the EWP (Emergency Watershed Protection) Program as a result of fires in 1996, 2000 and the huge Hayman fire in 2002. In fact, due to the mitigation he had done to his own property in that area, he was lucky to lose just part of a deck to his home and some trees, while the homes on either side of his burned down. From 2000-2004 Leon’s major task was to train and supervise fire rehab workers, volunteers, landowners and contractors. Because of all this, Leon was uniquely qualified to participate in the ACES Program and the fire mitigation efforts NRCS was funding in the Colorado Springs and El Paso County areas after the devastating Waldo Canyon fire. That fire burned 18,247 acres and destroyed 347 homes in the summer of 2012. Once the proper contracts were in place, Leon was also assigned to the Fort Collins, Colorado area to help owners there who lost property earlier in 2012 to the High Park fire, which burned over 87,000 acres, including 39,570 acres of private land and 259 homes.
Leon’s assigned role in fire mitigation was to conduct site assessments for the affected landowners and advise them on the specifics of protecting their property from further damage. As any engineer-type knows, it’s important to know not only what to do, but also where and how to do it. Leon said, “The two main elements of immediate post-fire mitigation are to slow future water flow and plant a protective cover over the damaged area ASAP, before your watershed becomes so damaged from heavy water flow that it loses its resource value. The way to do this is to first cut down most of the burned trees and properly trench them in as temporary terraces, along with straw waddles (long plastic tubes) where trees are not numerous enough to total about 40 per acre. Another more recent measure is to install trapbags, which are basically giant sandbags, as a channel treatment. When positioned in a terraced fashion, contour felled logs are very effective at slowing water flow and preventing planted seed mixes and mulch from washing off the slopes.” Both EWP money and EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) funding, such as the Special Drought/Wildfire Initiative in Colorado, may be used to reimburse landowners who use these recommended methods if they are properly installed. Another part of Leon’s job was to make sure they were installed correctly before the landowner was reimbursed.
What Leon liked best about his assignment was that he got a chance to share his expertise with people who implement his plans and, eventually, he got to actually see the positive end-result improvements to the once-destroyed landscape. What he liked least was that the financial resources truly needed were in extremely short supply.