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April 28, 2009

State Technical Committee Meeting Minutes

DATE: April 28, 2009

TIME: 9:00 a.m.

PLACE: Metro Tech, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Jacob Moore, Land Legacy
Jeff Crosby, Land Legacy
Mike Sams, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation
John Hendrix, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Dixie Birch, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Trent Holland, Cherokee Nation
George Geissler, OK Forestry Services
Shanon Phillips, Oklahoma Conservation Commission
Ben Pollard, Oklahoma Conservation Commission
Mark Aaron Betts, USDA – Wildlife Services/Vance AFB
Barth Crouch, Playa Lakes Joint Venture
Ross Huffman, National Wild Turkey Federation
Melinda Thompson, Farm Service Agency
Rod Wanger, Farm Service Agency
Bob Hamilton, The Nature Conservancy
Kurt Atkinson, OK Department of Ag, Food, & Forestry
Dwayne Elmore, Oklahoma State University
Jay Pruett, The Nature Conservancy
Jean Steiner, USDA/ARS
Melissa Shackford, The Nature Conservancy
Derek Sparks, U.S. Representative Mary Fallin’s Office
Nathan Johnson, Ducks Unlimited
Kara Williams, Office of Secretary of Environment
Paul Jackson, American Farmers & Ranchers
Scott Dewald, Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association
Marla Peek, OK Farm Bureau
Larry Harden, Oklahoma Department of Ag, Food, & Forestry
Terry Bidwell, Oklahoma State University
Mike Thralls, Oklahoma Conservation Commission
Monica Duke, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Suzanne Collier, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Lanny Miller, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Ron Hilliard, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Joni Mustain, Natural Resources Conservation Service

1. Meeting Called to Order – Ron Hilliard, Chairman

Ron Hilliard welcomed the group and stated that he appreciates everyone taking time to attend. All attendees introduced themselves to the group.

Ron discussed the stimulus funds that NRCS has received, and mentioned the Floodplain Easement Program for which Oklahoma held a signup and received 31 applications. Oklahoma NRCS submitted 15 applications for $6 million dollars to national headquarters to request funding for this program which provides another opportunity to keep landowners out of floodplain areas. Ron also mentioned the Sugar Creek project, an $8 million dollar project in Caddo County. He stated there are a lot of things going on at this time, and he stated he appreciates Mary Fallin sending a representative to this meeting. Ron informed the group that Oklahoma NRCS will receive allocations for this year’s Farm Bill tomorrow.

2. Farm Bill Update – Lanny Miller, NRCS

Lanny stated he appreciates the feedback NRCS receives from this group. He commented that NRCS does not have all the information for our programs yet, but we need to move forward and need the State Technical Committee members’ input.

The new Farm Bill became law on June 18, 2008, and increased funding nationally by 4.2 billion dollars. This Farm Bill focuses on agricultural and forestry lands, recognizes agricultural production and conservation as compatible goals, and modified the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) limits. Working land conservation programs include the following: Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, Conservation Security Program, and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. Conservation easement programs include: Conservation Reserve Program, Farm & Ranch Lands Protection Program, Grassland Reserve Program, Healthy Forests Reserve Program, and the Wetlands Reserve Program. Oklahoma is one of 4 states in the nation to be approved for the Healthy Forests Reserve Program.

EQIP: Lanny stated that the EQIP involves implementation of practices such as terraces, ponds, grade stabilization structures, and no-till systems. EQIP may be increased by $3.5 billion nationally. Lanny commented that the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) replaces the Ground and Surface Water Conservation Program and assists landowners with practices for agricultural water quality and water conservation enhancement activities. The Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) provides an emphasis on the transfer of innovative technologies and approaches and increased participation of specialty crop producers.

Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP): NRCS works closely with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) and their four technicians to deliver this program. The annual payment limitation for WHIP is $50,000; there was no payment limitation previously. The program is limited to private agricultural land, nonindustrial private forestland, and tribal lands.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP): This program was previously named the Conservation Security Program and it will be delivered nationally. Training was set for next week, but has been postponed. A CSP Signup will be held soon, and will be limited to 5 year contracts, with a $200,000 payment limitation, and an emphasis on nonindustrial private forest land.

Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP): The WRP is an easement program utilized to restore and enhance wetlands; most acreage enrolled is in the southeastern part of the state. Enrollment changes provide that governments are not eligible and landowners must own the land for 7 years. There may be further clarification on the ownership rule when policy is finalized. Easement valuation changes provide that a before and after appraisal is not required and there is now an opportunity to do a market analysis in lieu of appraisals. There are presently applications encompassing 3,500 acres on Oklahoma’s backlog list, and it is expected that the program will continue to increase.

Grassland Reserve Program (GRP): The GRP is administered jointly between NRCS and FSA, and its primary purpose is to protect grazing lands. There is a nationwide requirement that there will be a 60%/40% split between easements/rental contracts. GRP now provides the opportunity for eligible entities to cooperate with NRCS to purchase easements.

Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP): The FRPP is designed to protect prime and unique farmland. The minimum entity contribution was changed to 25% of the easement acquisition price rather than 25% of the appraised fair market value, and the entity is allowed to designate the terms and conditions of its deed subject to approval by the Secretary.

Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI): Oklahoma received one proposal for this program, and 6% of EQIP funds will be used for CCPI.

Lanny stated that individuals or entities are eligible to participate in conservation programs if their average non-farm AGI is less than $1,000,000, or 2/3 of the average total AGI is from farming, ranching, or forestry. Web service applications must be designed and in place for the new Farm Bill requirements for AGI. This was to have been completed by spring, but has not been accomplished yet, so has slowed down the process. NRCS is still waiting for final rules and policy in order to obligate funds and move forward with our programs. It is estimated that it may be June before funds are allowed to be obligated.

Lanny stated that for historically underserved participants, payment rates have been increased, and advance payments up to 30% for EQIP can be made. There will be a 5% funding set-aside for each group in EQIP, and a 5% acreage set-aside for each group in CSP.

Lanny stated he appreciates this group’s input, and NRCS will continue to provide information to the group, but are still working from teleconferences to receive information.

Derek Sparks of Representative Mary Fallin’s office asked whether there is a concern that the Farm Bill will not be authorized this calendar year due to all the work involved with the stimulus funds that were received. Lanny replied that he has not heard this, only that there will be delays. Ron thinks that due to the magnitude of what this new Farm Bill involves, it is just taking time, and the Farm Bill will be fielded in a very fast pace. Ron informed the group that he as State Conservationist has the latitude to grant waivers to landowners to go ahead and begin their work before their contracts are approved. Hundreds of waivers have been issued so that landowners can commence their practices.

Ben Pollard asked about the proposal for AWEP and CCPI and what the specifics are, and the reply was water conservation and improved irrigation in 3 panhandle counties. CCPI can be viewed as a glorified local emphasis area. It takes EQIP and WHIP funds to target to an area; this proposal came in with a targeted LEA which does not have to go through the ranking process. This is not the grant program it used to be, and it was asked whether government entities are allowed. Mike Sams asked about CCPI and if this is a national mandate for what Oklahoma is already doing with LEAs. Lanny stated that CCPI is very comparable to LEAs, but they do not compete for funding and there is a partner that NRCS works with. Existing guidance for CCPI is on the Oklahoma NRCS home page under EQIP.

Terry Bidwell asked whether there has been work done to evaluate the CSP and whether people who applied in the past will still receive benefits. Lanny replied that the tier system will go away, but existing landowners enrolled will still get their payments. John Hendrix asked if CSP is still targeted by watershed, and Lanny replied that no, it is offered statewide and nationwide.

3. State Technical Committee - Suzanne Collier, NRCS

Suzanne stated that the State Technical Committee serves as an advisory group to USDA to provide input to NRCS and FSA. All meetings are open meetings and are available to the public. An updated State Technical Committee Policy, including the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the Committee, was published in the Federal Register on April 7, 2009.

Changes to the Committee established with the new Farm Bill are: expanded agricultural and forestry involvement on the Committee; modified responsibilities of the Committee; exempted Local Working Groups from the Federal Advisory Committee Act; added review of whether Local Working Groups are addressing state (national) priorities; supports standardization of Committee operations through the development of SOPs; and reaffirmed the role of the Committee as advisory in nature.

Statutory required members of the Committee are: NRCS, FSA, US Forest Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (formerly the Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service), State Fish and Wildlife Agency, State Forester, State Water Resources Agency, State Department of Agriculture, State Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Agribusiness, Nonprofits with demonstrable conservation expertise, Owners of nonindustrial private forest land, and Agriculture Producers.

Because of the new changes to the Committee, NRCS will be sending out a questionnaire to gain contact information and email addresses from each agency. Please reply to this mailing in order that meeting notifications will reach the correct person.

NRCS’s webpage does include State Technical Committee Meeting Minutes. The SOP and interim final rule are also posted on the website.

4. Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) – Suzanne Collier, NRCS, & Rod Wanger, FSA

Suzanne reported that a GRP signup is ongoing. New applications are being accepted, and the ranking cutoff date is May 15th. She also reported that Oklahoma funded 102 rental agreements across 24 counties on over 52,000 acres from 2002-2007. In addition, five easements were funded in four counties on over 5,500 acres. The total financial assistance amounted to $8,645,712. The backlog of applications was well over $66 million from the initial years of the program signup.

The Farm Bill changed rental agreements to rental “contracts”. Only permanent easements are now available; there are no more 30 year easements. FSA administers the rental contracts; NRCS handles the easements. Priority enrollment is available for land previously enrolled in CRP if the land is eligible land, is of high ecological value, and is under significant threat of conversion to uses other than grazing. In addition, authority has been provided for NRCS to enter into cooperative agreements with eligible entities to own, write, and enforce easements.

Suzanne reported that nationally, 60% of GRP funding is to be used for easements, and 40% for rental contracts. If a state only wants to accept easements OR rental contracts, approval would be needed from the NRCS Chief. Oklahoma will acquire appraisals for all GRP easement applications that NRCS wishes to fund. Oklahoma received an initial allocation of $1,637,348 in financial assistance for fiscal year 2009.

Suzanne stated that State Technical Committee input is needed for: restoration practices and cost-share rates, Geographical Area Rate Caps, state priorities for project selection, and ranking and evaluation criteria.

Mike Sams questioned if hayland figures into this, and Suzanne replied yes, anything in support of a grazing situation. John Hendrix asked how CRP contracts will be handled, and Suzanne replied that expiring CRP is in the ranking criteria.

Ranking & Evaluation Criteria: Rod Wanger discussed the Evaluation Criteria Worksheet with the group. He stated a landowner receives more points for longer contracts and for an easement. Priority enrollment is given for expiring CRP acres; the landowner receives points if the land is enrolled in a 20 year contract or a permanent easement. If an entity submits an application, 100 points are received as they provide 50% of the funds and manage the easement. More points are received if no restoration is needed, or if the landowner is willing to pay for the restoration costs. Terry Bidwell asked about the benchmark for restoration – if it is from the technical guide, inventory of invasive species, etc, and Lanny replied it is based on ecological site guides. If at least 90% of the offered acres contribute directly to the forage base of the grazing operation, extra points are received also.

Rod then provided information regarding how extra points are received for protection from threats to conversion. If the offered acres are located in one of the identified counties AND at least 51% of the acres are within 3 miles of known/visible expanding developments, extra points are received. Marla Peek questioned why Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties were left out, and another member of the group commented that Osage County is excluded and you might pay less for an easement there than in Oklahoma County. Rod also stated that an application receives more points at ranking if no wind power will be developed. Dwayne Elmore commented that it should be based on wind likelihood instead of wind potential, and he thinks Osage County should be added to the map. John Hendrix commented he thinks the points should be increased to 50 or more from the 25 suggested. Shanon Phillips asked if additional points could be added for critical habitat for the Lesser Prairie Chicken, and Suzanne replied that this is covered in the ranking criteria in Section D.

Rod reported that native rangelands and prairies receive 50 points, and introduced pastures receive 30 points in the ranking criteria. Mike Sams commented that the concern of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is to stress natives, introduced pasture/no restoration – 80 points, and native range with cedars removed – 75 points. Dwayne Elmore suggested not offering extra points for introduced pastures, maybe give 10 points instead of 30 points. Paul Jackson stated he would hate to drop the points to 10 points as there are so many introduced pastures. Marla Peek and Scott Dewald both commented that due to the goals of the program, they want to see the points remain at 30. Jean Steiner commented that for contracts coming out of CRP, there are already given 50 points. Terry Bidwell stated the biodiversity of introduced pasture is “0”, and Dwayne Elmore agreed with that statement. A comment was made that applications do get extra points for the Lesser Prairie Chicken, extra points for non-development, and 25 points for agreeing not to do wind generation. Rod asked if there are any other species to add, or should the black-tailed prairie dog be removed. A comment was made to include the Mountain Plover, which is a declining species.

Location significance – proximity of area offered to other protected areas such as refuges, and wildlife management areas, national forests, natural areas, or permanent conservation easements was also discussed as far as how close to the protected area, and if the acreage limit should be taken out. Dwayne Elmore commented that proximity to grasslands should be added in order to have contiguous areas of grasslands. Terry Bidwell commented that the location language is unfortunate as the idea of protection is excluding private lands. Terry stated the assumption is that because it is owned by the government, it is in good condition and that is not true. There was also a question about C4 of the worksheet regarding making the landowner manage the area to keep “junk” off his land under contract. Mike Sams asked how C4 would be determined, and the reply was to look at the offered acres and pasture that borders it; it will be a visual assessment from the property being offered. Shanon Phillips commented on the purposes of GRP and how she would like to see the priority of watersheds tied into grasslands. John Hendrix stated if the offered acres have never been tilled or manipulated, he would like to see it receive 50 points. A comment regarding D4 (location significance) was made suggesting that something be included in the language for private land, nature preserves.

A handout was provided to the group, detailing proposed restoration practices for GRP, as well as a handout for proposed Geographic Area Rate Caps (GARCs) which was developed by the NRCS economist. The landowner will be paid the lesser of the appraised value, GARC, or landowner offer.

Rod also discussed CRP and the fact that Oklahoma has 160,000 acres coming out of the program this year. He stated there is an Environmental Impact Statement being conducted, and it will be awhile before there is a signup. The cap has been lowered to 32 million acres beginning in 2010. Only 1 ½ million acres will be put back in, and for 70% of these acres, people will have to do something with them (70% of 160,000 acres in Oklahoma). They will receive an average of $32/acre in CRP, but the majority will have a commodity base and will enroll in the commodity program. They will have the opportunity to hay and graze, and can enroll in GRP. John Hendrix asked if 25% of the county is still the cap, and Rod replied yes, but they must set a fraction of a % of their county for CREP.

5. Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) – Suzanne Collier

Suzanne stated that the 2002 Farm Bill allowed Cooperative Agreements to be developed with eligible entities for the FRPP. The 2008 Farm Bill requires the Secretary to establish criteria for certified entities that have demonstrated their ability to administer easements. Certified eligible entities are eligible for agreements of five years or more; non-certified eligible entities are eligible for agreements of three to five years. In Oklahoma, there are no “certified” entities.

Suzanne reported that entities have until June 12th to submit proposals to the State Conservationist. NRCS is not acquiring the easement; the entity handles the acquisition process and the management of the easement. NRCS provides funds to the entity, but the entity holds the easement and NRCS does not have the right of enforcement. Suzanne stated that a yellow book appraisal is not required, and the entity has the choice of the type of appraisal utilized. The State Technical Committee provides input to the State Conservationist on the weight of the national ranking factors and any state factors to be considered in the evaluation of FRPP parcels. Suzanne reported there are no unique or soils of statewide significance in Oklahoma. Ben Pollard asked how this relates to MLRA, and the reply was that 50% of the offered parcel has to contain a map unit with “prime” soils. Terry Bidwell stated “prime” is usually Class 1, occasionally Class 2.

John Hendrix stated he would like to see this program expanded; US Fish & Wildlife Service designated the Tallgrass Prairie as an important ecological site and relates to “furthers a State or local policy consistent with the purposes of the program”. Mike Sams commented that ODWC would like to see the Shinery Oak Grasslands in western Oklahoma considered.

Suzanne then discussed the eight Nationally Mandated Factors which were listed in a handout provided along with the State Ranking Factors to be considered. Dwayne Elmore questioned if forestland would be included since there is an increased interest in forestland in the Farm Bill, and Suzanne replied that private forestland would be eligible for FRPP if it occurred on prime soils and was to be maintained in production. Dwayne asked whether they would be eligible if there is cattle grazing with forestland as the sole purpose would not be timber harvest, and Suzanne replied they would be eligible. John Hendrix asked if the ranking points could be manipulated in the 8 national categories, and Suzanne replied they can be manipulated. Suzanne also commented that parcels will have to close in less than 18 months.

6. Closing Remarks - Ron Hilliard

Lanny Miller asked the group to email or mail input to USDA/NRCS for any programs. He stated he feels there was excellent discussion during the meeting, valuable information was gained, and he appreciates the input.

Ron Hilliard commented that we now have opportunities to gain lands that were not available in the past; it opens it up where we can do a lot more. Ron stated we need this committee’s input to get our programs going and he appreciates the attendance and discussion. He also informed the group that NRCS will be sending a mailing to committee members to request their contact information, and asked that they please return their information to us.

Ron thanked the group for their attendance and the meeting was adjourned.

Last Reviewed/Modified: 11/18/2009

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