States discuss local control of Conservation Title
With the 2008 Farm Bill nearing expiration in the upcoming year, Congress has started working on the 2012 version of the bill.
Title II, or the Conservation Title, of the 2008 Farm Bill accounted for $24.1 billion over five years, or 15 percent of the bills’ total spending, to fund programs that foster conservation efforts and are administrated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
Programs funded by Title II of the 2008 Farm Bill include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Conservation Reserve Program, Grasslands and Wetlands Reserve programs and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), among others.
With budget cuts across the board, the 2012 Farm Bill will be no exception, and Wyoming State Legislator and Natural Resources Manager for the Little Snake River Conservation District Larry Hicks says it would be very difficult to maintain the level of service for current conservation programs funded under the title with less money.
However, Hicks sees other options for maintaining conservation programs in Wyoming and states across the nation.
Current recommendations brought up by Hicks in the spring meeting of the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Interim Committee suggest that states should be allowed to assume primacy for the implementation of the conservation title of the farm bill.
“Money would go to the state to implement conservation programs instead of having a federal agency do it,” explains Hicks.
Currently, the NRCS administers these funds, but under this recommendation all money for conservation would go to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA), which would be responsible for implementing conservation programs.
There would be several options for the WDA after receiving funds, one of which involves distributing the funds to other organizations throughout the state, says Hicks. For example, funding for wildlife programs would be distributed to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department or animal livestock feeding operation funds would be given to Department of Environmental Quality.
Allowing states to assume primacy for conservation program funding would benefit the government in a number of ways, says Hicks, who adds that the current conservation title and federal administration of funds is ineffective, not allowing individual state concerns to be addressed as cost effectively as they could be.
“I personally believe we can be more responsive to producers needs. Fewer national priorities will be funded and more state and local priorities can receive the funding they need to be successful,” says Hicks.
Executive Director of the Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts (WACD) Bobbie Frank echoes the sentiment, saying, “It is certainly something that would give more local control.”
Along with this benefit, Hicks anticipates these programs would also be able to absorb budget cuts without diminishing conservation efforts.
“We believe there would be a 20 to 25 percent savings by giving states primacy, allowing states to maintain the current level of service in these conservation programs with less money,” says Hicks. “States can do it cheaper than the federal government can.”
The savings would be seen in large cuts to the NRCS, which currently administers conservation programs.
“You could get rid of a lot of mid-level and upper-level management in the NRCS, except maybe someone in the NRCS to make sure there was some consistency in how states were implementing the programs,” says Hicks.
Hicks also points out there would be some administrative burden for the states in adopting this recommendation, but allowing states primacy isn’t unheard of. Currently, many states have assumed primacy of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
Each state that assumes primacy for programs is required to uphold government standards for the CWA while preserving state and local authority over water use and planning. In assuming primacy of the CWA, each state submits reports to the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure compliance with laws, and federal oversight for conservation programs would come from the USDA.
“This isn’t a new concept,” said Hicks. “It’s taking an existing concept and moving it from the EPA to the Farm Bill. We have a model already in place with the Clean Water Act.”
However, the recommendation is far from being implemented.
“One of the things that the legislature has done is to ask the Director of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture Jason Fearneyhough to stay engaged on the issue. If there is anything that starts to move or requires legislative activity, we are in the loop,” says Hicks.
With a similar goal, WACD passed a resolution in favor of pursuing block grants for states and their conservation programs.
“This would give each state a block grant and authority to fund conservation programs. It is different than state control, though,” says Frank.
The WACD resolution was taken to the National Association of Conservation Districts, which also adopted the resolution.
“There are several national agriculture groups that have supported this concept, and have presented it at several forums,” says Hicks.
The Family Farm Alliance has endorsed the program, and at the same time the idea has been a topic of discussion in a series of meetings around the nation hosted by the Farm Foundation.
“This is a policy discussion right now,” says Hicks. “It is an option and something we need to look at. The biggest thing now is to have discussion and dialogue around the nation.”
Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.