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The Art of Conservation Planning

The 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 (TA) 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.

The 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 the 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.

The key to understanding TA 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

The NRCS TA 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
  • The NRCS employee travels to the farm or ranch.
  • There is discussion concerning the landowner's objectives.
  • The NRCS employee offers suggestions for options to meet the objective.
  • The employee helps the 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.
  • The 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.
  • The 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 conservation 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.
  • The landowner makes decision concerning extent of conservation to be included in plan.
  • The employee works with landowner to design and implement plan.
  • Should landowner decide not to develop a plan, NRCS TA 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 the 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.
  • The 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 acceptable life expectancy.

NRCS Community Relationships

The NRCS employees live in South Dakota communities. They often work with more than one generation of the ranch family. A trust and mutual respect develops. The 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

The NRCS TA is provided primarily through local conservation districts (CDs). This is key because it recognizes the need for local leadership and decision making in achieving a conservation program.

The CDs 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 TA is provided.

A Conservation Ethic

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

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

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

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

Conservation Practices

Conservation Practice Standards

The NRCS conservation practice standards (CPSs) provide guidance for applying conservation technology on the land and set the minimum level for acceptable application of the technology.

The NRCS issues National CPSs in its National Handbook of Conservation Practices (NHCP).  National standards for each practice are available. 

National Handbook of Conservation Practices (NHCP)
  • NHCP Notices – Updated or new National conservation practice standards are transmitted by notices to the National Handbook of Conservation Practices. Copies of the most recent NHCP notices are available.
  • National Conservation Practice Standards – The current National CPSs are available, both as MS-Word documents and in PDF format.
Additional Information

For additional information, please contact Jessica Michalski, SRC, (605) 352-1234 or by e-mail at