Welcome to our new NRCS employee e-newsletter!
From now on, we'll be sending this e-newsletter out every month, and we hope you'll find something interesting every time. Each issue will include features about NRCS’ on-the-ground work, our people, and much more.
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Thanks for all you do!
NRCS Public Affairs
NRCS Leading a Conservation Revolution
Inspired by hard work of field offices on the Sage Grouse Initiative and the success of pioneering ag certainty agreements, NRCS is introducing more ag certainty agreements for other wildlife species and for water quality.
To create these agreements, NRCS field offices work with landowners and managers to restore and protect the habitat of threatened or endangered species in return for assurance that no additional regulatory acts will be taken against them in the future.
“A few first adopters join the initiative and their neighbors and friends see how easy it is to use NRCS assistance,” says Matt Drechsel, an Assistant State Conservationist in Iowa who previously worked in sage grouse territory. “It’s increased activity in field offices in the region and it is getting us back to our foundation—providing technical expertise in comprehensive conservation planning.”
Thirty-six states are part of NRCS’ recent Working Lands for Wildlife partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And, if the Sage Grouse Initiative is any indication, field offices can expect a significant increase in requests for technical and financial conservation assistance related to the partnership.
“The Sage Grouse Initiative brought all of the players to the table—state and federal government, military, farmers and ranchers, and conservation partners,” says Connie Tharp, a District Conservationist in Mountain Home, Idaho.
The lure of regulatory assurance alongside the increased visibility of NRCS’ conservation work on a larger scale has led even more landowners to NRCS for conservation planning.
Now, NRCS is considering ag certainty agreements for water quality in many states with watersheds designated impaired by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Producers have made it clear that they are tired of the moving goal post of regulation,” says Don Baloun, Minnesota State Conservationist. “Producers don’t want to spend their resources on regulatory requirements just to have them change again in two years.”
Minnesota will pilot the first ag certainty program for water quality in January or February of 2013. It will allow producers who implement prescribed conservation practices to receive compliance assurance from EPA and the state government related to the Total Maximum Daily Load requirements of the Clean Water Act.
Many states in the Mississippi River Basin and Chesapeake Bay Watershed are looking to ag certainty agreements as a way to increase voluntary conservation in areas where it is needed the most.
As more ag certainty agreements are adopted, the key to the success of these efforts will be NRCS staff doing what we do best: forming long-term relationships with producers and landowners based on our technical expertise—and continuing to enhance our coordination efforts with all conservation and land management partners, both private and public.
“For the first time, ag certainty brings government together to speak with one voice and plant a solid goal post on regulation in partnership with farmers and ranchers,” says Jason Weller, NRCS Chief of Staff. “We’re trying to change the regulatory paradigm—we’re making smart, targeted and strategic investment today in order to preclude water or wildlife regulation in the future.”
If, as State Conservationist Baloun says, the policy is attractive to producers and leads to more conservation of our Nation’s natural resources, we are looking at just the beginning of a conservation revolution.
Photos courtesy of Ben Ellefson, NRCS Minnesota and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Back To The Start: Focus on Conservation Planning
Making sure a landowner has a conservation plan prior to our obligating Farm Bill funds is NRCS policy. But really, every landowner should have a conservation plan before even applying for Farm Bill programs.
Many states are revamping their processes to make this a reality. One is North Carolina, which is developing conservation plans for all current and new customers under the guidance of State Conservationist JB Martin.
“We are taking steps to guarantee that conservation planning is leading programs instead of programs leading conservation planning,” Martin says.
In fact, one of the ranking questions for EQIP in North Carolina asks if the applicant has a conservation plan. If he or she doesn’t, he says, “We work very hard with the landowner to get one developed so that they are ready for Farm Bill program participation and their applications rank high enough for funding.”
At first, there were many questions about how only 173 NRCS employees would be able to get all existing customers updated plans, and all new customers new plans.
“It has taken all of us in the state to get this up and running again,” Martin says. “We have a small staff statewide that assists 100 counties. Our field offices did a tremendous job, and now our customers and partners are really seeing the difference.”
Louisiana is another state that’s working to create conservation plans with and for all of its customers. And Corby Moore, District Conservationist for Louisiana’s DeRidder Field Office, agrees with Martin’s assessment. “It all gets down to boots on the ground,” he says. “It’s getting to know your customer, walking their land with them and working together as partners on the application process.”
Customers aren’t the only ones who benefit—so do NRCS’ partners.
Martin explains: “As the state’s budget has been cut and federal funding gets tighter…[t]he cooperative conservation partnership is jointly utilizing conservation planning as a means of using a mix of federal, state and local services to solve identified local resource concerns.”
The Soil and Water Conservation Districts are also on board with the conservation planning priority.
“Our districts are seeing this as an opportunity to have their employees certified as conservation planners and are looking at ways to make this happen,” Martin says.
Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett, who was born in North Carolina, saw planning as the cornerstone in resource conservation. NRCS in North Carolina, many other state offices, and their conservation partners and customers are still finding the same value today.
The Latest on NRCS Improvements - Guest Columnist: Jason Weller, Chief of Staff
NRCS Improvement Efforts are like components of an agency conservation plan. With both, the improvements we make now will ensure long term sustainability, effectiveness, and productivity.
All efforts share a common vision: increasing efficiency, thriving in current and new budgetary environments by using cutting edge technology, and focusing on our mission by spending more time in the field putting conservation on the ground.
We are aligning with the Secretary’s Blueprint for Stronger Service, but there are also other valuable improvements we can deliver for our agency. Our growth over the last 20 years, and the associated increases in budget and workload, requires an assessment of how well our business models help us meet today’s challenges.
It’s time to put the right people in the right places, address budgetary realities, increase accountability, and ensure we make changes that are employee-friendly.
The improvements will be phased. Some are at advanced stages of planning and implementation, while others are still in analysis. For example, improvements for Soil Survey and Multi-State Servicing Office Plans, are moving forward this year. State leadership will submit ideas for the 90% solution and, working with partners, the “Field Office of the Future” in September.
Administrative efforts are closely tied to the USDA Administrative Solutions Project and are underway. The full list is on the Improvement SharePoint site and timeframes will be announced there, as decisions are made.
We want to hear from you! Please send any questions on NRCS improvement efforts to:
Featured Photo from the Field
Take your best shot!
Every issue we’re featuring a photo from the field. Send us yours for consideration.
Make sure you tell us who took the photo, who’s in the photo (if anyone), and where it was taken. Send to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(The photo shown here is a crawfish found in a trap on a crawfish/rice farm in Louisiana.)
Around the Agency: Blogs
Have you checked out NRCS’ blog stories? Recently, we highlighted the success of a nonprofit partner in Texas that works to get small farmers and ranchers enrolled in NRCS programs, and showed you photos of a threatened gopher tortoise laying eggs on an NRCS-enrolled property in Alabama. We typically post a couple of stories a week, so keep an eye on the “conservation” section of the USDA blog!