Of the countless challenges that Carter Smith ‘86 faces in his role as executive director of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the issue that concerns him most — the one that keeps him up at night — is that of “relevance.”
“People protect what they value,” said Smith. “Texas lands and wildlife are a tremendously important part of our identity and heritage. They inform our sense of who we are as Texans, and they are critical to our livelihood, as well as to the social, physical and economic well-being of current and future generations.
“As our state has become more urban, we now have a population that is less connected to the out-of-doors than any previous generation,” he explained. “Helping people find meaningful opportunities to connect with the state’s natural assets and resources is our most Herculean challenge and the most important work of this department.
“As an agency, we measure our work in generational terms,” he added. “We are working to ensure a quality of life for generations of Texans who have not even been born yet. That is why it is essential that we protect our natural resources like the crown jewels that they are.”
In addition to bringing people closer to the land, Smith’s responsibilities involve juggling a broad range of complex, often contradictory, issues. Fortunately, he possesses the rare ability to reconcile conflicting needs and to help people find common ground — both literally and figuratively.
Case in point: 95 percent of Texas lands are privately owned, yet Smith is charged with preserving and protecting these lands for the public good. To accomplish this goal, he works closely and cooperatively with private landowners to motivate them to steward their natural resources, both for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. He also works hard to balance the interests of people who want to enjoy Texas wild spaces for hunting and fishing with the need to protect the state’s wildlife and natural habitats.
Smith also is actively engaged in securing funding, mitigating increased pressures on Texas lands and wildlife, and addressing issues related to water supply and demand, a subject he described as “the defining natural resource issue for this state and century.”
While the challenges he faces may seem daunting, Smith finds his job deeply meaningful. “This is exciting, important work we’re doing,” he said. “It’s a privilege to do something you love.”
An Austin native who spent his youth exploring his family’s farm and ranch lands, Smith credits St. Stephen’s with helping to strengthen his interest in land and resource management. “The open environment at St. Stephen’s was very conducive to learning, and the school provided such a strong sense of place,” he said. “I’m sure that helped me to create a more defined conservation ethic.”
After graduating from St. Stephen’s in 1986, Smith’s path took a circuitous route, alternating between school and conservation-oriented pursuits. He went on to earn a wildlife management degree from Texas Tech University and a master’s degree in conservation biology from Yale University.
So what advice does Smith have for St. Stephen’s students today?
“Don’t think you have to have all the answers now, and don’t be constrained by someone else’s ideas of what you should do,” he said. “Take time to explore and to discover. Don’t be afraid to follow your heart when considering a career in public service. Above all, don’t be afraid to fail.”
Encouraging words from a man whose job is as big as Texas.