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June 28, 2007

State Technical Committee Meeting Minutes

DATE: June 28, 2007

TIME: 9:00 a.m.

PLACE: Metro Tech, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

PRESENT: Jay Pruett, The Nature Conservancy
Larry Hensley, Oklahoma Grazing Lands
Sara Lyda, Quail Forever
Mike Sams, OK Department of Wildlife Conservation
Dwayne Elmore, OSU Cooperative Extension Service
Terry Bidwell, OSU
John Hendrix, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Glen Hensley, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Chris Omelia, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Jennifer Wasinger, Office of the Secretary of the Environment
Kurt Atkinson, OK Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division
Mike Thralls, Oklahoma Conservation Commission
Trent Holland, Cherokee Nation
Butch Garner, Cherokee Nation
Ray West, Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority
Robert Gregory, Land Legacy
Marla Peek, OK Farm Bureau
Ericka McPherson, OK Farm Bureau
Tim Bartram, OK Wheat Growers
John Weir, OSU
Jeff Crosby, Land Legacy
Mike Bira, USEPA, Region 6
Tim Herfel, USEPA, Region 6
Michael Hunts, OK DEQ
Keri Dennis, Congressman Tom Cole’s Office
Paul Jackson, AFR/OFU
Kelley Brown, OK Rural Water Association
Kathy Koon, OK Water Resources Board
Wayne Kellogg, Chickasaw Enterprises
Chongo Mundende, Langston University
Bullit Farris, Land Legacy
Rod Wanger, Farm Service Agency
Jim Reese, Farm Service Agency
Suzanne Collier, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Richard Zetterberg, Natural Resources Conservation Service
Kevin Norton, 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 he has been the State Conservationist for Oklahoma since November, 2006. He provided a brief background of his NRCS career, stating he is in his 32nd year. He grew up in the small farming community of Haskell, Texas, where he still operates a sixty acre farm that his grandfather owned. His grandfather did everything with mules and by hand, and “ricked” the hay. His grandfather was the reason he decided to get into the agriculture business, and his goal was to be an ag teacher. Ron spent nine years as a plant breeder, then an opportunity came along with SCS and he enrolled in the Master’s program at Texas Tech. He spent 21 years in Odessa, Texas, as the District Conservationist, went to South Carolina as an Assistant State Conservationist for Operations & Programs, then to Maryland as the Deputy State Conservationist, then to Guam as Acting Director of the Pacific, and then to West Virginia as State Conservationist for 2 years. Ron still operates three farms with 706 acres in Texas, and feels he can stay more in tune with NRCS farmers as he farms. Ron commented that he plans to be in Oklahoma for awhile. He stated that the State Technical Committee is an advisory committee, and he definitely wants feedback from this group.


2. Farm Bill Program Overview – Kevin Norton, NRCS

Kevin welcomed the group and stated since the Farm Bill is currently under development, he will provide an overview of programs, but there will be a more intense meeting in the fall after the Farm Bill provisions are determined. Kevin commented that work on the Farm Bill is not expected to be wrapped up until the middle of July, and the House and Senate must provide the Bill to the President to sign by the end of September. Kevin informed the group that there is a handout on the House Subcommittee Conservation Section available for their review; this is the House’s version and the Senate will most likely do something different. He stated the Secretary’s proposal is on the USDA website.

CRP: There will be no general signup this year for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). There is a CREP project underway, primarily in western Oklahoma. Last year was a record year for haying and grazing on CRP. Kevin stated that Rod Wanger will provide more details on the CRP later in the meeting.

GRP: There is no new funding for the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) this year, so there was no signup. Funding was available to enroll existing applications for 16 rental agreements with 16,060 acres for $2.2 million dollars in late 2006. The national office indicated that available FY 2007 GRP funds will go to limited resource and beginning farmers. Oklahoma is one of four states in the running for this additional funding.

FRPP: The Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) is delivered though non-governmental organizations such as the Trust for Public Land, Land Legacy, Norman Area Land Conservancy, and the Nature Conservancy. Seven easements have been closed to date for 800 acres at a cost of $1.5 million dollars. Three more properties are expected to close this year. $700,000 was available; however, no proposals were received. There was difficulty finding matching funds so the funding was returned. Kevin stated that if this group knows anyone who may be interested in this program, please advise.

WHIP: The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) is offered statewide and delivered with an agreement with ODWC who provides four full-time technicians. Kevin stated NRCS will continue to identify resource issues and priorities for this program.

WRP: The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) has over 180 easements enrolled with almost 90% of the restoration completed. Last year OMB and the Department of Justice changed the appraisal process to pay the difference in the fair market value of the land and the value of the land encumbered by the easement. Many landowners are turning down their offers, and NRCS has contacted everyone on the backlog list. Marla Peek asked if NRCS can move this funding to another program, and Kevin stated that is not allowed. John Hendrix asked if there is a chance NRCS could return to the old appraisal process, and Kevin stated there is a note in the House Bill to return to the appraisal process utilized in January, 2003. Kevin commented that NRCS is a partner with ODWC in enrolling land in the Drummond Flats Area in Garfield County. Kevin feels there is a tremendous amount of good things happening with this program, and he would like to see this group tour some of the WRP projects.

Kevin provided a chart showing conservation payments in 2006. $35 million dollars was paid for the Conservation Reserve Program last year. $29.5 million in technical assistance funding was provided for NRCS programs in 2007, and $81.9 million was received for financial assistance funding.

EQIP: Kevin stated that the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding has grown every year since the 2002 Farm Bill was implemented. Kevin provided charts detailing the number of EQIP contracts, EQIP dollars per contract, EQIP obligation percent paid, the number of active contracts and acres, and the number of completed contracts and acres. Kevin stated that a better job is being done to get the work completed and paid.

Kevin also provided a chart listing the top 10 planned practices for EQIP in 2007: Brush Management, Fence, Pasture and Hay Planting, Nutrient Management, Pond, Irrigation System-Sprinkler, Grade Stabilization Structure, No-Till, Irrigation System-Micro, and Pest Management. He also provided information for the EQIP statewide resource concerns: Irrigation – 21 contracts for $834,803; Manure Transfer – 33 contracts for $312,933; Animal Waste Management – 3 contracts for $54,938; Lagoon Closure – 1 contract for $29,048; and Quail Habitat – 16 contracts for $578,898. Kevin stated that ODWC helps deliver the Quail Habitat program in four focal areas, one in the west, one in the northeast, and two in the south central part of the state.

Kevin informed the group that there is a major change that will affect all cost-share programs – NRCS will go to a payment schedule method of payment. There is a major effort in USDA to clarify payments made which will put program payments into a “green box” which deals with WTO and tax issues. This will eliminate uncertainty about the amount of financial assistance a producer will receive, but will be a painful change for some. Rod Wanger asked if there will be an inflationary adjustment, and Kevin replied that yes, NRCS will adjust the payment for inflation as there will be a dollar figure attached to a scenario. Kevin also commented that contracts currently in force will not be affected, and more information on this payment process will be available at the next State Technical Committee Meeting in September.

Kevin informed the group that a handout is available to sign up for State Technical Committee subcommittees for the different programs, and if members wish to be on a subcommittee, please put your name on the respective list and send it to the NRCS State Office. Kevin commented that there are also brochures available regarding the State Technical Committee that members can provide to other organizations that are not represented.


3. Conservation Priorities - 2008 – Kevin Norton, NRCS

Kevin stated that the State Technical Committee will assist in shaping the way programs are delivered and setting conservation priorities for the state. NRCS will continue LEAs, continue to work with tribes and underserved communities, and will continue to determine the natural resource issues. Charts listing the natural resource concerns were posted at the front of the room, and Kevin instructed each agency to vote four times for the concern(s) they feel are most important to address. The concerns on the charts were provided from locally-led groups, and eastern red cedar was listed as a priority concern in 39 of the 77 counties. Marla Peek commented that we are not talking about practices, but priorities as we are using a lot of the same practices on two different priorities i.e. surface water quality and streambank erosion. Kevin replied there is an overlap, but there are other practices that distinguish between the two. Marla then asked about riparian buffers as they fall in both, and if once the Farm Bill rolls out, will we be back to discuss what they want the priorities to be. Kevin replied that this group will assist with setting the priorities for Oklahoma. Jim Reese asked about cost-share on musk thistle eradication and if it is on a public right-of-way, what to do? Kevin replied that cost-share is available for musk thistle and sericea lespedeza. If these are identifiable at the local workgroup level, an application should be taken and if funding is available, it can be cost-shared on. Three successive treatments are applied, then the landowner is responsible for operation and maintenance. It would pay $11.00/acre at a 50% cost-share level. Kevin stated there is a biological control – the weevil. At the county level for bar ditches, the County Commissioners would be responsible for their right-of-way; the State Highway Department is responsible for their right-of-way, but generally this is not enforced. Marla commented that this changed from county to state, but there is no funding available. Mike Houts stated the Department of Transportation and Department of Ag could be called to make a complaint.


4. EQIP Conservation Innovation Grants – Suzanne Collier, NRCS

Suzanne reported that funding for Conservation Innovation Grants comes from the EQIP allocation. The funding is for innovative new approaches for getting conservation on the ground, not for research projects. Funding is awarded to non-governmental organizations, state and local government units, tribes, and individuals. Funding will be for approaches that have not been tried before, and there is an annual competition that is held early in the calendar year. When the announcement comes out, it covers the resource concerns and what is needed to be detailed in the proposal. This usually does not change much from one year to the next. At least 50% of the total cost of the project must come from non-federal matching funds provided by the grantee. The project sponsor carries out the entire project; NRCS oversees the project. This is not intended for research or scientific studies; it should be a new method for doing something and getting it encompassed into conservation work. In 2007, there were three national categories: National Natural Resource Concerns. Chesapeake Bay Watershed Category. and National Technology Category. The national natural resource concerns were: water resources, soil resources, atmospheric resources, grazing land and forest health, and market-based approaches. The National Technology Category consisted of improved on-farm energy efficiency, and water management.

The CIG awards for 2007 were announced June 27th, and provided $20 million dollars to fund 51 projects across 36 states. There were 171 total proposals for $61.7 million dollars. Oklahoma is a part of a multi-state project, and a list of the awards with a summary of the projects is available at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/cig/2007awards.html. It has been proposed to increase funding for Conservation Innovation Grants to possibly $100 million dollars per year.

A State Conservationist with the NRCS’s Chief’s concurrence may implement a separate state-level component of CIG. Up to 5% of the state’s EQIP financial assistance allocation could be used, which would be about $1 million dollars in Oklahoma. State competitions have the same overall criteria and categories as the national CIG competition, but they may be modified. The State Technical Committee or a sub-committee will evaluate the proposals and send rankings to the State Conservationist. The State Conservationist will make the final awards. John Hendrix asked if Oklahoma has their own competition, could the proposal still be considered for a national grant, and Suzanne replied they will still be allowed to compete nationally. It was asked if this would be handled in the same timeframe as the national competition, and Suzanne stated yes, it would mirror their schedule. It was also asked if it is felt this would be more of a benefit instead of using the funding for EQIP. Kevin replied that some ideas for the grant include using subsurface poly-tape, controlling red cedar, and carbon trading – no till to help a wheat farmer; he stated it needs to have direct correlation with EQIP. Dwayne Elmore stated that as it is a 50/50 match, he thinks it is beneficial as it is a match. Mike Thralls said if NRCS is asking the group’s opinion if this should be done in Oklahoma, he feels it should be pursued as there may be a fairly sizeable jump in EQIP funding with the new Farm Bill. Marla Peek asked if this funding would be supplied in addition to the EQIP allocation, and Kevin replied that no, it would come out of the state’s EQIP allocation. Mike Thralls asked if there is a way to complement the state with the national to bring in additional funding for it, and Kevin replied that we cannot coordinate with the national, but could delay awarding until the national awards are announced so that one does not exclude the other. Mike Thralls stated that as this is an opportunity to fund projects that would benefit the state, he believes it is worth considering. Kevin informed the group that NRCS will appreciate hearing any comments or concerns, and stated he had received a suggestion of an animal waste injector system for an area for farmers’ use. Ron Hilliard stated we may want to form a committee to study this and report with a recommendation at the next meeting. Kevin instructed the members to sign up on the form provided if they are interested in working on the CIG.


5. Conservation Reserve Program – SAFE Initiative – Rod Wanger, FSA

CREP: Rod Wanger reported that the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) agreement was signed on April 23rd by Governor Brad Henry and Deputy Secretary Charles Conner. The CREP goal is to enroll 9,000 acres of riparian buffers, and the signup began June 1st. The state puts up 20% and the federal government puts up 80% of the funds. State funds for this program came from the Scenic Rivers Commission and the City of Tulsa. CREP offers participants: a CRP contract up to 15 years; $100/acre signup incentive; up to 50% cost-share on practice installation; a 40% practice incentive payment; a 50% bonus on the CRP rental rate/acre; state cost-share for winter feeding floors; state cost-share for fencing wooded riparian areas; and potential easement payment with TMUA or OSRC.

Rod stated that Mike Thralls and his staff did a great job in getting this project going. Mike Thralls stated that additional investments will be made, and the program will grow in the Illinois River area, and asked when it is anticipated that the first contract will be signed. Rod replied that the first contract will be signed as soon as NRCS has everything in place to write plans. Mike commented that he appreciates the partnership with the Tulsa Municipal Authority, Scenic Rivers, NRCS, and FSA, and stated this is a good beginning for Oklahoma. The CREP Manager is Gina LaBeck.

SAFE: Rod reported that the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) is a new CRP initiative to allow states to address local wildlife conservation needs. June 1st was the deadline to send in proposals for SAFE, and proposals were allowed to be submitted by federal, state, or local agencies or by a private organization. Oklahoma has been allocated 15,100 acres for SAFE, and SAFE will be operated on a continuous CRP signup basis beginning in January, 2008. For successful SAFE offers, the contract length may be up to 15 years, there will be a signup incentive payment of $100/acre, cost-share will be up to 50% of practice installation cost, and a practice incentive payment of 40% of installation cost will be provided. One SAFE proposal was received and will be presented by Mike Sams of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Rod will make a recommendation to the Oklahoma State FSA Committee regarding this proposal.

6. CP38E Mixed-Grass Prairie Restoration – SAFE Initiative – Mike Sams, ODWC

Mike Sams presented the SAFE proposal to the group which was developed by ODWC and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Stakeholders in this proposal are ODWC, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, NRCS, FSA, and The Nature Conservancy. The goal of the CP-38E Mixed-Grass Prairie Restoration SAFE is to restore mixed-grass prairie type associations in Northwestern Oklahoma. The project boundaries will include parts of Dewey, Ellis, Harper, Woods, and Woodward counties. The project outcome is to provide and maintain 15,100 acres of mixed-grass prairie habitat for species of greatest conservation need. Eligible land will be enrolled within 3 federal fiscal years upon approval of this project, vegetative restoration will be completed within 2 years of the contract’s approval date, and contracts will run 15 years. Restoration and Management of Declining Habitats and Food Plots practices will be used (CP25 and CP12). Practice CP25 requirements will include: offered fields to have been physically planted to an annual crop the previous year (land already in perennial cover is not eligible); and offered fields to be not less than 80 contiguous acres in size. At least 1% of the acreage will be planted to sand plum. Prescribed burning will be completed between years 5-8 and again between years 10-13. Mowing will be completed between years 5-8 and again between years 10-13. Mowing will be conducted from February 1st through March 15th. Strip disking may be used to increase stand diversity and bare ground. Food plots are allowable, managed grazing may be used, and managed haying will not be allowed. Participants are encouraged to mark fences. Emergency haying and grazing will not be allowed.

Mike provided a list of some wildlife species that stand to benefit from the CP38E SAFE project in his handout. Also provided in the handout is a description of costs, with total CP38E Costs to FSA being almost $11 million dollars. Mike stated ODWC will work with NRCS and FSA to prepare a Fact Sheet, and news articles will be published on their website. John Hendrix stated that signup for this program is under the Continuous CRP Signup. Terry Bidwell asked if there will be an annual maintenance fee, and Rod replied that this will be calculated in the rental rate. A question was asked regarding what happens after 15 years and the contract expires, and Mike replied the landowner is free to do what he wishes with his land. Marla Peek asked if SAFE competes with other people wanting the continuous CRP signup and if it is taking funding away from continuous CRP, and Rod replied no. A question was asked about what happens to funding when it is not utilized, if it is pooled at the national office to return to states, or is it returned to the treasury. Kevin reported that we are not a state that returns funding willingly. He stated that FRPP this year is the first time funding has been returned and it does go back into the mix and is re-distributed to states. After September 30th, the funding is locked and the money can only be used for specific things such as modifications to contracts. Rod reported that the SAFE proposal will be reviewed by the FSA State Committee and then forwarded to the national office.

Kevin told the group that he appreciated them taking time to come to the meeting, and to please provide comments to NRCS. Kevin stated the group’s feedback is needed, and all those interested in conservation should be involved with this committee. Kevin instructed the group to take the handout entitled, “Report on Contributions to NRCS Conservation Programs for FY2007”, complete their organization’s contributions, and return the form to NRCS by July 30, 2007.

8. Closing Remarks – Ron Hilliard, NRCS

Ron Hilliard stated that he wants a lot of people involved in this committee as their expertise is needed. He asked members to make him aware of any meetings their organization is holding as he tries to make as many meetings as he can and wants to be involved. Ron commented that he would like to begin work on CIG with the subcommittee. Ron reported another State Technical Committee meeting will be held in September, to determine what the Farm Bill involves. Ron thanked the group for their attendance.
 

Last Reviewed/Modified: 11/18/2009

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