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USDA conservation work shared

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

USDA conservation work shared

During the Wyoming Natural Resource Rendezvous on Dec. 6, Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie spoke to attendees about the work he has done on conservation issues in the state of Wyoming and his work in developing a new model focusing on locally-led, incentive-based conservation.

Undersecretarys role 

“My job is to support producers and U.S. agriculture,” Bonnie said. “I work with three agencies – the Farm Service Agency, Risk Management Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service – and our job is to partner with agriculture to provide financing, technical assistance, conservation programs, risk management tools and a variety of other tools to support U.S. agriculture.”

He noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supports both production and conservation, and most importantly, they can’t be separated.

“When we don’t have profitable producers, the industry is not going to have conservation,” he shared. “Conservation helps our producers with more productive and valuable land – these two things are tied together.” 

Early career 

Over the years Bonnie has taken an old model of conservation and developed a focus on land management to conserve ecosystems embracing a multi-level approach. 

“As I’ve gotten into conservation, I’ve realized many people believe in an old model. One which was largely about public lands, dismissive of management and thought conservation should be done from afar,” he shared. 

When he began his career, in regards to private lands conservation, Bonnie noted, “There was a heavy emphasis on regulation, reserves, public lands and approaches creating a lot of conflict around wildlife conservation. Throughout my career, we’ve seen conflict related to wildlife conservation and a host of other environmental issues.” 

Research attitudes on
the environment

After working for the Obama administration, Bonnie went to work for Duke University to teach and conduct research on natural resource policy. Some of his focus involved looking at rural attitudes of the environment. 

“From my experience working with rural ranchers, farmers and forest owners, there’s this deep conservation ethic, but there’s also concern about environmental policy,” Bonnie shared. 

While at the university, Bonnie did a vast amount of research and talked to those on the ground, while also hosting focus groups in the state of Wyoming and across the West. 

“We polled on issues related to conservation, wildlife and environment regulation, and we learned folks in rural America care about the environment just as much as the folks in cities,” he said. “There’s no difference. However, there is a difference when we start talking about policy and what policy looks like.” 

In many instances folks voice a strong commitment for conservation and the environment, but what they are most concerned about is the way conservation is done by the federal government, explained Bonnie. 

“It’s not about the what. As Americans, we all agree on the what, but what we don’t always agree on is the how,” he said. “It’s critically important as we think about issues related to working lands that we get the ‘how’ right.” 

Wyoming work 

In the past year, Bonnie has visited the state of Wyoming to work on a variety of conservation issues and projects. 

“I’ve come to Wyoming a handful of times, and the reason I keep coming back and being engaged with Gov. Mark Gordon and his staff, is because of the opportunity I’ve had to help build a model for conservation here,” he mentioned. “This model helps recognize the importance of working lands based on incentives, collaborations and voluntary stewardship.” 

The partnership USDA has developed with the state of Wyoming has been an important model, he explained. 

“One of the reasons why we are excited to work in Wyoming is because we feel we can get the ‘how’ right to create a locally-led, incentive-based effort recognizing the value of stewardship of ranchers, farmers and foresters who have been doing this for a long time, while also recognizing we need to partner with them for migration efforts and conservation,”  he said.

Moving forward Bonnie expressed the importance of embracing and focusing on management to not only improve habitat for rangeland, but also for livestock. 

“Dealing with issues like fire and cheatgrass require a new model of conservation of voluntary, incentive-based, locally-led conservation,” he said. “This is why we are here.” 

USDA investments

Over the last several months USDA has made a series of commitments for incentive-based, locally-led conservation. 

In early May, USDA announced a new partnership using diverse farm bill investments to support voluntary conservation of private working lands and migratory big game populations in Wyoming. 

“We’ve committed an additional $6 million to the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to help producers with fencing issues, address cheatgrass and other issues affecting ranchers,” he added. “We’ve added an additional $10 million to our conservation easement program to help folks where there are migration corridors to benefit wildlife and keep landowners in the business of agriculture.”

USDA is looking into creating a new tool around a conservation lease where producers can do a 10- to 15-year lease and receive an annual payment. The tool has a projected sign-on date in early 2023.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” he said. “There is an opportunity here to build a bipartisan approach bringing all sides of the table together.”

“Our goal is to build an enduring model of conservation built for agriculture, forestry and conservation and has broad bipartisan support,” he concluded. “Rather than watching the pendulum of policy change swing from one administration to another in Washington, D.C., we look forward to building a lasting effort benefiting the environment, and we believe the work being done in Wyoming can help us do this.”

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to 

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