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Frequently Asked Questions | Conservation Effects Assessment Project

This webpage provides answers to frequently asked questions about the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP).

About the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP)

Q: What is the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP)?

A: USDA’s Conservation Effects Assessment Project, CEAP, is a multi-agency effort led by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to quantify the effects of conservation practices across the nation’s working lands over time. CEAP findings are used to guide conservation program development and support conservationists, agricultural producers, and partners in choosing the most effective conservation actions and making informed management decisions backed by data and science.

CEAP assessments are carried out at national, regional, and watershed scales for conservation efforts related to croplands, grazing lands, wetlands, and wildlife. These assessments empower a diversity of customers to evaluate conservation successes, identify potential improvements, and set targeted, measurable goals for the future.

Q: What agencies, organizations, and other entities contribute to CEAP?

A: CEAP is a joint effort led by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in partnership with federal and state agencies, universities, non-government organizations, and agricultural producers. Key partners within USDA include the Agricultural Research Service, Farm Service Agency, National Agricultural Statistics Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and U.S. Forest Service. Additional partners include the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Q: What is the vision of CEAP, and what is CEAP's primary goal?

A: CEAP's vision is enhanced natural resources and healthier ecosystems through improved conservation effectiveness and better management of agricultural landscapes. The primary goal of this effort is to improve efficacy of conservation practices and programs by quantifying conservation effects and providing the science and education base needed to enrich conservation planning, implementation, management decisions, and policy.

Data and Assessment Methods

Croplands Assessments

Q: What are the data sources and associated assessment methods for CEAP croplands assessments?

A: CEAP cropland assessments are developed using confidential farmer surveys coupled with modeling to estimate the effects of conservation practices. Data sources for CEAP models include the National Resources Inventory (NRI) and records from both NRCS and Farm Service Agency offices at USDA Service Centers.

The approach consists of four basic steps or activities:

  1. A subset of NRI sample points are selected to serve as "representative fields." These NRI sample points, which are located on cultivated cropland and land in long-term conservation cover, provide the statistical framework for the model as well as information on soils, climate, and topography.
  2. USDA implements CEAP Cropland Farmer Surveys to collect the information needed at the selected NRI sample points to run field-level process models and assess the effects of conservation practices. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) interviews farmers to obtain current information on farming practices such as crops grown, tillage practices, nutrient and pesticide application, and conservation practices.
  3. USDA uses the physical process model called APEX (Agricultural Policy Environmental Extender) to estimate field-level benefits. APEX is a variant of the EPIC (Erosion Productivity Impact Calculator) model that allows USDA to estimate the effects of buffers, grassed waterways, and other erosion control practices. APEX allows estimation of the reductions in soil loss, reductions in nitrogen loss, reductions in phosphorus loss, and reductions in pesticide loss from farm fields reported as reductions in pesticide risk. APEX also allows USDA to evaluate soil quality enhancement as a result of practice implementation.
  4. USDA integrates the model output from APEX with another model called SWAT/HUMUS (Soil and Water Assessment Tool / Hydrologic Unit Model of the United States) to assess off-site benefits for water quality and availability. HUMUS includes databases on land use and sources of non-point and point source pollutants that are used with the SWAT model to simulate the transport of water and potential pollutants from the land to receiving streams and routes the flow downstream to the next watershed, ultimately to the estuaries and oceans. SWAT/HUMUS allows estimation of the reduction in in-stream concentrations of sediment, nutrients, and pesticides attributable to implementation of conservation practices. 

Q: What specific data do you collect through CEAP croplands assessments?

A: Farmer survey documents are available on the CEAP Publications webpage, under the Croplands section. These survey documents provide the specific questions farmers answered for unique survey years and, as such, the specific data and information available for modeling, reporting, and additional analyses through CEAP croplands assessments.

Grazing Lands Assessments

Q: What is the assessment approach for CEAP grazing lands assessments?

A: CEAP grazing lands assessments are comprised of several complementary facets to quantify environmental effects across non-federal grazing lands and rangelands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). NRCS invests financial and technical assistance into conservation of federally-managed lands when there is a direct benefit to associated non-federal lands. Including those BLM lands in CEAP grazing lands assessments provides a more holistic understanding of the unique diversity, needs and solutions to resource conservation of grazing lands. The primary data sources for CEAP grazing lands assessments are the USDA National Resources Inventory Grazing Land OnSite Data Study, which began on rangelands in 2004 and contains a vast suite of field data on both rangelands and pasturelands since 2013, plus the Landscape Monitoring Framework data from the BLM.  

Associated assets to guide the assessment process include a comprehensive literature review of what is currently known about the effects of the dominant conservation practices on pastureland and rangeland, ecological site group descriptions developed by CEAP grazing lands and NRCS, terrain models developed to improve our ability to impute known data to areas lacking in data, and regional and sub-regional research studies on specific concerns related to water conservation, forage growth, fuels and wildfire risk, wildlife habitat quality in conjunction with CEAP wildlife assessments, etc. The overall CEAP grazing lands effort provides tools for conservationists, ranchers, and researchers to utilize, with many aspects contributing values needed to populate process-based models including  RHEM (Rangeland Hydrology and Erosion Model), AERO (Aeolian Erosion), KINEROS2 (Kinematic Runoff and Erosion), and APEX (Agricultural Policy/Environmental eXtender). 

Wetlands Assessments

Q: What is the assessment approach for CEAP wetlands assessments?

A: There are five inter-related objectives for CEAP wetlands assessments. 

  1. Conduct regional collaborative investigations. These provide data to:
    • Develop conservation planning tools to target and improve wetland restoration and related practices,
    • Quantify wetland ecosystem services – such as suitable fish and wildlife habitat, pollutant management, and surface water runoff and floodwater management – across an alteration gradient in agricultural landscapes,
    • Interpret effects and effectiveness of conservation practices and programs on specific ecosystem services,
    • Identify multiple-scale factors that influence the capacity for a wetland to provide an ecosystem service within a predicted range of estimates, and
    • Develop an integrated landscape model for simulation and forecasting capability as part of a National Wetlands Monitoring Process.
  2. Build science collaborations as the foundation of CEAP Wetlands.
  3. Document the scientific knowledge base and gaps in knowledge to understand the effects of conservation practices and programs on wetland ecosystem services.
  4. Analyze Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conservation practice and program data to illustrate applications of data to support CEAP Wetlands research and monitoring activities.
  5. Develop a national wetlands monitoring process in collaboration with the National Resources Inventory (NRI) to enhance decisions affecting the conservation of wetlands in agricultural landscapes.

Wildlife Assessments

Q: What is the assessment approach for CEAP wildlife assessments?

A: Fish and wildlife are affected by conservation actions taken on a variety of working lands. Because of this, elements of CEAP wildlife assessments link to and complement CEAP croplands, wetlands, grazing lands, and watersheds assessments. The approach for CEAP wildlife assessments is to: 

  • Work collaboratively with science partners to conduct relevant assessments, 
  • Leverage the use of existing data to the extent possible, 
  • Identify critical data gaps and stimulate action to fill them, 
  • Base assessment activity on regional priorities, and 
  • Use assessment findings to inform and adapt conservation delivery to optimize fish and wildlife benefits. 

Assessments are targeted to address priorities identified in collaboration with state, regional, and headquarters NRCS staff and through interaction with the broader fish and wildlife science and conservation community.    

Watersheds Assessments

Q: What is the assessment approach for CEAP watersheds assessments?

A: There are currently three CEAP watershed categories:

  1. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Benchmark Watersheds. The ARS watershed studies provide information needed to verify the accuracy of models used in national CEAP assessments. Fourteen watersheds are included and focus on water and soil quality, and water conservation, as primary resource concerns on rain-fed agricultural land.
  2. Special Emphasis Watersheds established by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Studies within these watersheds address specific resource concerns, such as manure management from animal feeding operation and water use and conservation on irrigated cropland. Ten special emphasis watersheds were initially established in 2004. Five have been added in recent years.
  3. Competitive Grants Watersheds, established by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Studies within these watersheds focus on understanding on how best to locate and sequence conservation efforts within a watershed in order to achieve locally defined water quality goals. Projects also addressed the human dimensions of conservation adoption, implementation, and maintenance of practices as well as effective outreach techniques.