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Direct Tools for Conservation Policy | Economics NRCS

The economic forces we have been discussing - from interest to taxation - are largely determined by laws and customs that are not primarily aimed at influencing farmers' conservation decisions; they influence these decisions because they affect costs and returns in production plans. If they are modified to work for conservation, they may be called indirect tools of public conservation policy.

Let us now turn to those tools that are directly aimed at influencing farmers' conservation decisions. In addition to education, these tools are mainly zoning ordinances and regulations that require certain conserving practices or prohibit certain depleting ones. The farmer, as the citizen most concerned, can help in shaping and applying these tools; but in his own business he must adjust to them.

Education is important - but no cure-all

The need for education in conservation of resources has often been stressed; and indeed, it is one of the most important tools of conservation policy. It is needed not only for farmers but for the whole voting public, which is becoming more and more urban, and thus less in contact with resource problems. It is needed not only for adults, but perhaps even more for young people. It is needed not only in the technology of conservation practices, but also in recognizing when such practices are needed and are economically justified. It can help both farmers and the general public understand why such direct tools as those discussed in the rest of this section may be necessary.

But important as education is for conservation, it is no cure-all. If dollars and sense considerations keep a farmer from adopting conservation practices, education is not the answer. Other tools are needed then. Often, however, education can be effectively combined with such tools.

When are zoning and regulation of practices needed?

Indirect tools and education have one main disadvantage: there is little chance that all farmers will respond to them in the same way within a certain time. But sometimes a conservation policy will be successful only if all farmers respond to it, and sometimes even to a definite extent and within a certain time. If, for example, a practice is needed to prevent fires or pests, one farmer who does not carry it out promptly may endanger the whole area. Economic incentives would not guarantee that every farmer would conform.

In other situations, indirect tools may not be acceptable for constitutional or political reasons, or may be too complicated or costly to administer, or their use in conservation may conflict with their other purposes. Then zoning and regulation of practices may be preferable.

Zoning may be used to conserve natural resources

One of the most common direct tools is zoning. Zoning prohibits certain uses in a given area. It is applied through city and county ordinances.

Though zoning is mostly used for other purposes, it can be successfully used to conserve natural resources: For example, zoning against some agricultural uses may be employed to protect soil resources in areas that are subject to severe erosion if cultivated. Forest resources may be protected by zoning against agriculture, grazing, or year-round residence.

Zoning is mainly negative; it prohibits uses but does not induce a change of practices. Zoning would not be effective, for example, in preventing the spread of weeds from one property to another. For this purpose, regulations that require certain minimum control practices are needed.

Zoning has legal limits

Zoning may benefit farmers who wish to use their resources as permitted under the zoning law; it may protect them against increased costs or decreased returns due to uses by some of their neighbors. But it may decrease the opportunities of other farmers, who wish to make a use of their resources that the zoning law prohibits. It may force them to conserve their resources more than they feel they can afford.

How far can such interference with private use plans be carried, legally? The basis of all zoning is the power of the government to restrain the individual in the exercise of his rights when such exercise becomes a danger to the community. Interference with private rights under this power must, according to the Constitution as interpreted by the courts, be "reasonable" and not "arbitrary."

Zoning has economic limits

Zoning also has economic limits. These are determined by a farmer's opportunities in using his resources under zoning restrictions.

If use must be too greatly restricted, zoning is not feasible. For example, to protect a watershed for a big city by zoning, most other uses might have to be prohibited. Such areas must be owned by the public, or by public-utility districts operating under close public control.

Regulation of practices is especially important for water resources

Regulation of practices is applied not only through city and county ordinances, as zoning is, but also by state or federal law and, particularly, by special districts, such as irrigation and water districts, and districts for flood control, soil conservation, forest conservation, and grazing. Most special districts are set up under state law. They provide a means whereby the farmers directly concerned can regulate themselves. Generally, democratic processes of referendum and election safeguard their use.

Regulation of practices is better developed with water than with other resources. This is particularly true in semi arid states like California. The basis for regulation is the principle of "reasonable, beneficial use." It is defined by state law, rules of the Division of Water Resources, and regulations of water districts (which may specify certain practices as wasteful under conditions in a given district and may refuse water to those who use it wastefully).

Fewer regulations apply to soil conservation

The soil is affected by fewer regulations than one might expect.

In California, soil-conservation districts do not have regulatory powers under the 1949 revision of the law. Unlike most states, California does grant these districts taxing power, an important tool for cooperative action; but the limit (two cents per $100 of assessed value) is too low to be of much use.

Assisted greatly by the United States Soil Conservation Service, soil-conservation districts have thus far served to inform farmers about proper practices and have encouraged voluntary cooperation. In the future, they may become an important means of cooperative self-improvement and self-regulation by farmers.

Self-regulation is being tried for forest resources

California is testing out self-regulation in forest resources. The Forest Practices Act of 1945 establishes four forest districts. In each, regulations drawn up by a committee of timber owners and owner-operators are subject to approval by two thirds of the timber ownership of the district and by the State Board of Forestry. If approved, they have the force of law. As yet, the Board has not attempted to enforce the regulations, but has sought voluntary cooperation.

Regulation of practices has legal and economic limits

Regulation of practices, like zoning, has legal and economic limits. The legal limits depend on how much of an economic burden regulation imposes on private enterprise. The courts have been conservative, but neither negative nor inflexible, in defining a "reason-able" degree of regulation.

The economic limits of regulation might sometimes be expanded by providing compensation for the economic burden on farmers. Most present subsidies, such as soil-conservation payments, apply to practices that are voluntarily agreed upon. But there seem to be no legal obstacles to paying compensation for required practices, so long as funds from taxation are spent for "public purposes." The public could pay part of the cost when the farmer who is asked to perform the practice does not receive all of the benefits. Partial compensation has in fact been provided for in a few regulations, such as those for eradicating bovine tuberculosis.

Regulation versus public ownership

As with zoning, if regulations have to be very detailed and strict, or if a large compensation is necessary for some time, public ownership may be more effective and cheaper.

However, economic and technological conditions may change so that certain practices that are socially desirable may also become economical for the farmer. Thus increased knowledge of what fertilizers to apply on given soils and for given crops, together with the fact that fertilizer prices have risen relatively less than prices of farm products, has made fertilizing profitable on farms where it did not pay before.

Where similar changes seem likely, regulation with compensation may be imposed to safeguard resources until conditions have changed enough so that farmers will carry out the practices in their own interest.

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