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Art of Conservation Planning

America's farmers and ranchers are the working conservationists on private and tribal lands in our country.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is the federal agency that, for over 60 years, has had the privilege of providing technical assistance to these true conservationists as they make a voluntary commitment to apply conservation practices on their private lands. The conservation applied on private lands provides benefits to all citizens by reducing soil erosion, improving water quality and quantity, enhancing wildlife habitat, maintaining open spaces and aesthetic landscapes, and improving the health of the land for future generations.

NRCS recognizes that private landowners must have a positive economic return to stay in business and apply conservation on the land. Economic productivity and environmental stewardship are compatible, inclusive, and dependent. The foundation, purpose, and mission of NRCS is to help landowners treat every acre of their private property according to its needs and within its capability. That treatment includes a balance between the land use for economic return and protecting its ability to be productive from generation to generation.

Sometimes we refer to Resource Management Systems, or Conservation Systems, or environmental sustainability. Whatever the name, it is as simple or complex as necessary to meet the conservation objectives of the farmer or rancher. We sell conservation -- that is our business. We have an objective of achieving a conservation system on the land that is tailor made to the desires of the landowner, to each field, and to the operating unit.

Key to understanding technical assistance in conservation planning is to know that the final decision maker is the private landowner. He or she will make the decision as to what, how much, or if any conservation at all will take place on the land. The process is continuous and remains flexible, is implemented over time, uses a common sense approach, and is achieved only when the landowner is ready, willing, and able to move forward.

NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance

NRCS technical assistance is based on the collective experience of all of the men and women of our team. They possess, and have at their disposal, thousands of hours of experience in soil and water field-tested conservation approaches and techniques to resolve resource concerns. The foundation under that ethic is one of understanding our customers' needs and being a conservationist who speaks for the land. NRCS recognizes all of the complexities inherent in achieving the objective of conservation, which include commitment to the voluntary approach, recognizing that the landowner is the decision maker.

A Technical Assistance Scenario

  • Landowner contacts an NRCS office
    - Perhaps to discuss a resource concern
    - Perhaps to implement a conservation practice
    - Perhaps to sign up for a cost-share program
  • NRCS employee travels to the farm or ranch.
  • There is discussion concerning the landowner's objectives.
  • NRCS employee offers suggestions for options to meet the objective.
  • Employee helps landowner consider all available resources, opportunities, and alternatives.
  • Determination is made if landowner is interested in focusing on a portion of the unit or the entire operation.
  • Adequate consideration is given to entire operation to ensure that conservation practices being targeted at this time will be compatible with potential future decisions.

Landowner may be considering:

  • Assistance to install a stock tank in the lower pasture.
  • In addition to the stock tank in that lower pasture, he/she may be interested in options for the whole pasture.
  • While the NRCS employee is there , some options for the entire operation might be considered.
    - Landowner understands that there is no commitment and, after full evaluation, he or she will make the decision on what, how much, and when a conservation plan may be developed (if one is developed at all).
    - A resource assessment is necessary to determine the condition of range, pastures, soils, and other resources.
    - Employee asks for input to help understand land manager's concerns and goals.
    - Following the resource assessment and time spent with farmer/rancher, there will be a good understanding of what conser- vation opportunities are available, what needs to be done, and how and when the work may be done.
    - This is a flexible process that can be tailored should the individual decide to change his or her mind or expand on what was initially discussed.
    - A preliminary assessment of costs and beneficial effects of each alternative is presented.
    - Landowner makes decision concerning extent of conservation to be included in plan.
    - Employee works with landowner to design and implement plan.
    - Should landowner decide not to develop a plan, NRCS technical assistance is still available to help reach conservation goals.
    - Some conservation programs base the cost-share contract on a conservation plan.
    - At the request of the landowner, the employee will explain the various conservation programs available, the cost share involved, and how they might be used to implement alternatives or decisions from the conservation plan.
    - If landowner signs up for a program, he/ she may do so for a portion of or the entire plan, depending on program eligibility.
    - If operator is successful in being approved for a conservation program, assistance will be provided in preparing and implementing the contract. Producer will be informed of program eligibility and participation criteria prior to signup.
    - NRCS standards and specifications for each selected conservation practice will be explained. The standards establish a minimum level of quality for planning, designing, installing, operating, and maintaining a conservation practice.

    These standards and specifications provide a level of assurance that the practice will provide protection to a reasonable level and will have an accept- able life expectancy.

NRCS Community Relationships

NRCS employees live in Wyoming communities. They often work with more than one generation of the ranch family. A trust and mutual respect develops. NRCS employees and local landowners grow and learn together about conservation over the years. Employees have an ethic and commitment for the land and for the success of the producer, both as an agricultural operator and as a conservationist.

The Conservation Partnership

NRCS technical assistance is provided primarily through local conservation districts. This is key because it recognizes the need for local leadership and decision making in achieving a conservation program.

Conservation districts are authorized under state law to provide local leadership for soil and water conservation. Board members are locally elected or appointed and are essential in providing the leadership needed to ensure locally led community and landowner-driven conservation programs. Conservation districts set the priorities locally for when and how NRCS technical assistance is provided

A Conservation Ethic

Private landowners are the working conservationists of America. They are the decision makers in a voluntary process of technical assistance. They decide what, how much, where, and when in their interaction with NRCS.

NRCS employees are champions for conservation. They are conservation sales people.

Working together on the land, NRCS and landowners tailor make conservation plans to meet specific needs through voluntary technical assistance.

Landowner data and information remains private and confidential; it is protected by law.

Casey Sheley
, State Resource Conservationist, (307) 233-6768