Boyhood Love of Nature Evolves into Longtime Career

February 24, 2020 - Raleigh, North Carolina, USA: International Erosion Control Association annual meeting, featuring Executive Director Samantha Roe. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © Ian Wagreich Photography

Industry Leader Focuses on Learning and Sharing Knowledge

By Sheryl S. Jackson

As a boy, Earl Norton walked in the furrows as his father and grandfather plowed their farm. “I loved how good the earth smelled, and I didn’t like what happened when it rained and the soil was washed away.”

Little did he know that his childhood experiences would lead him into a career that focused on preservation of soils and protection of waterways.

Norton began his career as a student trainee soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 1957. After college and two years of service in the U.S. Navy, he began his professional career with the NRCS, where he worked until the end of 1994. He shifted in 1995 to working as a stormwater consultant, trainer, and active participant in IECA.

When asked about the accomplishments of which he is most proud, Norton says, “Helping to develop the state-wide Alabama Erosion and Sediment Control Partnership program is my most rewarding activity related to the construction stormwater industry.” The initial partnership started in 2001 with the support of the Alabama Soil and Water Conservation Committee, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, the Alabama Association of Conservation Districts, the Alabama Chapter of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he explains.

“The partnership has grown over the years to include 11 partners that provide products and activities that offer technology for the erosion and sediment control industry,” says Norton. “I had the opportunity to coordinate the partnership from 2001–2020 and continue to work in a support role. Partnership accomplishments have made this activity more rewarding than words can describe.”
In 1996, Norton attended the annual IECA Conference, which led to his involvement with IECA—attending every conference since 1996. “The courses and the conference offerings have provided excellent opportunities to learn technology needed in my work area,” he says. “During this part of my career, I had the opportunity to serve on the CPESC Council and become even better acquainted with folks that I had met at the IECA conferences.”

Throughout the years, Norton has not just acquired knowledge but also actively shared knowledge. “Earl has helped more active and former CPESCs to prepare for their exam than any other person in Alabama,” says Barry Fagan, PE, CPESC, vice president of environment and infrastructure at Volkert Inc. “He has participated in agronomic, urban, and construction-related stormwater research at Auburn University and through his influence on professionals like me, has positively impacted the stormwater programs of several public agencies and the work of engineering firms and construction companies across the state.”

While Norton has also provided valuable feedback during the development and promotion of several erosion and sediment control products that are widely in use today, one of his most significant contributions may be the encouragement of others in the industry, says Fagan, who has known Norton for 20 years. “Earl has driven me to do more good things and to be a better leader than I would have been without knowing him,” he explains. Early in their history, Norton introduced Fagan to Perry Oakes, telling him “this is one of the guys that will take our place someday,” he says. “I was both encouraged and challenged by the statement, which helped me to see that he was in it for the cause, not for himself, and that there was an expectation of leadership that I needed to try to live up to.”

February 24, 2020 – Raleigh, North Carolina, USA: International Erosion Control Association annual meeting, featuring Executive Director Samantha Roe. Photo by Ian Wagreich / © Ian Wagreich Photography

Fagan is not the only person Norton has supported. “Earl has been a constant encourager, sending me and others notes of thanks and compliments, along with advice on how we could make this better or leverage the message to help others,” says Fagan. Correspondence from Norton—to him as well as others—often includes words and phrases such as “great job, fantastic, thank you, benefits to all,” and more positive encouragements, sometimes delivered in all caps, he says. “Earl has been a teacher, a mentor, a guide, and an inspiration to me in several areas of life.”

Perry Oakes has known Norton since the early 1980s, working with him at the NRCS and the Alabama Erosion and Sediment Control Partnership. Oakes took over as the partnership program coordinator when Norton stepped down at the beginning of 2021. “Since I have taken over as the program coordinator, I have quickly learned that he made a complicated job look easy,” says Oakes. “It is great to have him support me in my new role.”

When asked to describe Norton’s first impression on people, Oakes says, “He has what I would call a true ‘conservation ethic,’ which means that whether he is at work or at his treasure forest, Earl is always concerned about erosion and keeping the ground covered.” He adds, “He always has a smile, loves meeting you, and wants to learn more about you.”

The greatest change Norton has noticed throughout the years relates to construction stormwater. “When I started working in the construction stormwater world in 1995, many construction sites in Alabama were wrapped with silt fence, and installation of vegetation and other cover practices were often deferred until late in the project, with little or no actions taken to minimize turbidity,” he says. “Now, we see sites reflecting use of a systems approach with a variety of BMPs that significantly reduces erosion and sediment delivery throughout the project and often does a credible job of addressing turbidity. There is still much room for improvement but we are on a positive track,” he says.

“As the industry matures and changes, I see more attention to the use of a systems approach in selecting BMPs, more attention to using the right practices, at the right time, with proper installation and maintenance,” says Norton. He also sees continued improvement in products for erosion and sediment control. “Also, in the future we will see more attention to research findings to provide a stronger science-based approach to site management.”

Norton’s career has been a journey of learning that began in an elementary school with three teachers—each of whom taught two grades in one classroom. “I got to hear grades 1 through 6 taught twice,” he points out. “Excellent teachers from grade 1 on through high school and then Auburn University provided a solid foundation for my work with NRCS and as a stormwater consultant.”

While Norton enjoys fishing, hunting, yard work, and gardening, he says that he gets most of his mental therapy as a forest farmer in a rural area about 30 miles from his home. “I have an opportunity to practice land management with trees, grass and legumes, wildlife, and other critters that benefit from a piece of God’s earth under my care,” he says. “To be very candid, at age 83½, I have been blessed beyond my expectations with a career that I would not trade for any other even if I had an opportunity to make a change.” 

Fast Facts: Earl Norton

Years in erosion control: 60+

Academic degrees: B.S. in agricultural science and M.S. in agronomy and soils from Auburn University

Professional certifications: CPESC, Certified Professional Agronomist, Certified Crop Advisor, Certified Prescribed Burn Manager
2020 awards and recognitions: Outstanding Professional (IECA), Lifetime Achievement Award – CPESC Fellow (EnviroCert International)

Other recognitions: Soil and Water Conservation Society – Fellow (2005); Alabama Wildlife Federation’s Governor’s Conservation Award – Water Conservationist of the Year (2005), Soil Conservationist of the Year (2014)