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Conservation Planning: Productive Lands, Healthy Environment

Range Management Specialists discuss ranch goals with a customer
NRCS Texas range management specialists Kent Ferguson (right) and Lem Creswell (left) discuss ranch resource management goals with Montague County rancher Rooter Brite.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is USDA’s technical agency for providing assistance to private land managers, conservation districts, Tribes, and other organizations in planning and carrying out conservation activities and programs.

What Is A Conservation Plan?

A conservation plan is the record of decisions and supporting information for treatment of a unit of land meeting planning criteria for one or more identified natural resource concerns as a result of the planning process.  The plan describes the schedule of implementation for practices and activities needed to solve identified natural resource concerns and takes advantage of opportunities. 

The plan may include component plans that address one or more resource concerns. Example component plans include:  Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plan, Grazing Plan, Integrated Pest Management Plan, Wildlife Management Plan, etc. The needs of the client, the resources, and Federal, State, Tribal, Territorial and local requirements will be met. NRCS provides conservation planning and technical assistance to individuals, groups, Tribes, and units of government to help plan and carry out conservation decisions to meet their objectives. This help includes onsite planning assistance in developing conservation plans.

Conservation plans are developed and implemented to protect, conserve, and/or enhance natural resources within the client’s social and economic interests and abilities. Natural resources are defined by NRCS to include soil, water, air, plants, animals, energy and human considerations (SWAPAE +H).

How Conservation Planning Works

In 1947, Hugh Hammond Bennett identified the principles of conservation planning in his text, Elements of Soil Conservation. According to Bennett, an effective conservation planner must adhere to the following principles:

  1. Consider the needs and capabilities of each acre within the plan
  2. Consider the client’s facilities, machinery, and economic situation
  3. Incorporate the client’s willingness to try new practices
  4. Consider the land’s relationship to the entire farm, ranch, or watershed
  5. Ensure the conservationist’s presence out on the land

Planning involves more than considering individual resources.  It focuses on the natural systems and ecological processes that sustain the resources.  Ultimately, the Earth is one ecological system, embodying all the smaller subsystems into one interconnected system.  The relationship between living organisms and the environment are part of an ecological system’s complexity and are not fully understood. Predicting both on-site and off-site effects upon ecological components is essential and is an inherent part of conservation planning.

The role of humans is considered in the formulation and delivery of planning activities. Human values and activities influence the structure and functions of ecological systems. Human actions result in direct and indirect effects on natural resources, both detrimental and beneficial. The challenge in conservation planning is to balance the short-term demands for goods and services with the long-term sustainability of ecological systems. 

A conservation plan facilitates a client to operate in an ecologically sustainable, economically sound, and socially acceptable manner within the client’s social values. Conservation planning can be implemented successfully using current knowledge and technology, while recognizing that the art and science of natural resource management will continue to evolve and will never be complete or finished. The planner strives to balance natural resource issues with economic and social needs through the development of the conservation plan.

The NRCS Planning Process

Venn diagram showing the three phases of conservation planning
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The conservation planning process helps the planner and client accomplish the following:

  1. Help protect, conserve, and enhance natural resources
  2. Design alternatives that meet local resource planning criteria for identified resource issues
  3. Include human concerns for achieving sustainable agricultural systems
  4. Consider the effects of planned actions on interrelated geographical areas (i.e., looking off-site, beyond the planning unit boundary)
  5. Consider and explain the interaction between ecological communities and society
  6. Focus on ecological principles
  7. Consider the effects, risks and interactions of planned systems and practices on the natural resources, as well as economic and social considerations
  8. Identify where indigenous stewardship methods might be needed or explored
  9. Assist with development of plans, regardless of scale, which will help achieve the client’s and society’s objectives
  10. Identify where knowledge, science, and technology need to be advanced
  11. Assist with meeting requirements for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which is incorporated into all steps and activities of the conservation planning process

Planning is complex and dynamic. Successful planning requires not only a high level of knowledge, skill, and ability on the part of the planner, but also the use of professional judgment. Planning by its nature is both progressive and adaptive. 

A first time client may only be interested in a single practice to meet one of their resource concerns. By introducing the planning process, the client is presented a range of alternatives to address multiple resource concerns and ideally, to develop and implement a resource management system (RMS).  Planners and clients work closely together based on where the client is in relation to their knowledge level and where they are in the planning process.  It is important to continue assisting the client address resource concerns by increasing the level of planning and implementation over time and ultimately achieving planned goals.