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What is RCA?

RCA Issue Brief #1 September 1995

Who's asking questions?
What will the RCA do for us?
Who is preparing the third RCA appraisal?
What's the schedule?
Natural resource concerns

Did you know ...

...that, in 1993, there were 2 million farms, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 1935, but that the amount of land in farms remained almost the same, with 978 million acres of farmland in 1993 and 1 billion acres of farmland in 1933? And that irrigated farmland rose from 30 million acres in 1950 to 51 million acres in 1992?

...that between 1982 and 1992, sheet & rill erosion on U.S. cropland declined from 4.1 tons per acre to 3.1 tons per acre? And that crop residue management practices, which reduce soil erosion and air pollution, and can improve water quality, were used on 99.3 million acres in 1994, up from 71.7 million acres in 1989? And that the Food Security Act of 1985 and the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 played a major role in these improvements?

...that the annual rate of wetland loss because of agricultural conversions in the United States between 1982 and 1992 was less than one-tenth what it was between 1954 and 1974?

...that Americans consumed 70 percent more broccoli and 24 percent more carrots in 1993 than in 1983? And that production of commercial fresh vegetables more than doubled in 10 States?

...that Americans spent 11 percent of their disposable personal income on food (at home or eating out) in 1994, down from 24 percent in 1935?

Who's asking questions?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently preparing its third appraisal under the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) of 1977. The Act requires such appraisals every 10 years to further its policy of advancing "conservation, protection, and enhancement of the Nation's soil, water, and related resources for sustained use." Using the information in the appraisal, the Department will also prepare a National Conservation Program, a strategic planning mechanism to give direction to future USDA policies and programs.

Working together with nearly 20 other Federal agencies, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is leading the analysis on the status, conditions, and trends in land use and soils, water quality and quantity, air quality and climate change, and socio-economic issues.

Another major assessment, the fourth, of the status and trends of many of the Nation's public lands is being prepared by USDA's Forest Service. That report, "Assessment of the Forest and Rangeland Situation in the United States," is being completed under the Resources Planning Act, and will complement the RCA Appraisal. Both are called for by law, and both are designed to help the Congress and the public gain a thorough understanding of the major trends affecting the use and protection of our natural resource base.

What will the RCA do for us?

Comprised of technical and non-technical studies of all elements of the natural resource base on non-federal lands, the appraisal will provide an environmental scan of the current agroenvironmental conditions and trend projections to the year 2050. A watershed approach to land uses and how those uses are affecting environmental quality--both positively and negatively--can help guide producers' and communities' decisions on how to protect the resource base while continuing to support our economically sound and extraordinarily productive agricultural system. The appraisal will provide the information USDA will need to prepare the National Conservation Program, which is designed to guide policy and program development for the 21st century, and to help land owners and users continue to be productive stewards of our natural resources.

Among the subjects under review are soil erosion, soil quality, grazing lands, wetlands, wildlife and habitat, endangered species, bio-mass (animal waste and plants for energy production), new crops, new uses of agricultural products, pesticides, water quality, and agroforestry. The appraisal also is examining how agricultural practices--including conservation, irrigation, and nutrient and pest management--are affecting water quality. It will review the ways in which agriculture is affecting air quality--and vice versa--as well as the role of agriculture in absorbing (sequestering) carbon, thereby reducing carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Woven throughout these issues are the human aspects of the agriculture-environment relationship, including work force composition, partnerships, non-agricultural demand for land and water, cultural resources, rural communities, outdoor recreation, and ways to ensure an economically viable future for farmers and ranchers.

Who is preparing the third RCA appraisal?

Twenty-five teams are collaborating on more than 30 papers for the Third RCA Appraisal (RCA III). Assisting the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the preparation of RCA III papers are other agencies of the USDA--Agricultural Research Service; Consolidated Farm Service Agency; Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service; Economic Research Service; Forest Service; National Agricultural Statistics Service; Office of Budget and Program Analysis; and Rural Housing and Development Service. Also involved are the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Biological Service, and U.S. Geological Survey, all in the U.S.Department of the Interior; the Environmental Protection Agency; the Council on Environmental Quality; the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. Department of Commerce; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

What's the schedule?

While the final RCA III Appraisal and the National Conservation Program are not scheduled for completion before 1997, many portions of the work are being made publicly available as they are ready. Through 1995 and 1996, the long reports--working papers--on the many subjects being addressed will be issued for technical and public comment. Public meetings on RCA III were held in Washington in 1993, and additional regional public meetings are planned for1996. This publication is the first in a series of issue briefs--short summaries of the salient information contained in the working papers and other information being developed through the RCA process. Look for these issue briefs over the next several months.

Natural resource concerns

People's natural resource concerns are driven by community needs and desires. People in Minneapolis, for example, are primarily concerned with the quality of the water in their lakes and rivers, which are heavily used for fishing and recreation. People in Dallas focus on the quality of the water they drink and the need for water conservation in the Southwest.

These findings are a result of a survey of 17,000 NRCS customers in 1994. The accompanying map shows the five most important issues in each NRCS region. Water quality or water quantity are among the most important issues in all six regions. The accompanying chart shows the 21 most important natural resource issues facing the states in the 21st century.

map of NRCS regions

chart of natural resource issues




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