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TSSH Part 616

Determinations of Highly Erodible Lands (HEL)

Background (616.00)

There are three general topics for the resource soil scientist to be aware of and consider regarding Highly Erodible Lands (HEL). These are: use of the frozen 1990 HEL list; questions regarding changing a designation where field investigations indicate that the field(s) were incorrectly mapped or where a soil survey update has occurred since 1990; and HEL designation procedures for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The following discussion is paraphrased from the National Food Security Act Manual (NFSAM) and guidance provided by the National Specialist for Conservation Program Appeals, Equitable Relief, and Highly Erodible Cropland Conservation Compliance.

The Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation Compliance (HELC/WC) regulation 7 CFR 12 applies and was published Sept. 23, 1996 (Interim Final Rule). The regulation that provides the guidance, equations, and factor values to be used for making HEL determinations is codified in 7 CFR 610, Subpart B, specifically, 7 CFR 610.14. Agency guidance based on these documents can be found in the National Food Security Act Manual, Title 180.

The 1990 HEL list (616.01)

HEL determinations are made using soils information for a soil map unit provided in January of 1990, except for PHEL (Potential HEL). This criterion provides a “level playing field” for all USDA participants insofar as HEL determinations are concerned.

Determinations are made using the frozen soils legend for each county (whether it originated from a published soil survey, a soil survey in progress, a revision of a current soil survey, or just “cropland mapping”) as it existed on that date. The statute provides that all cropland being used to produce a commodity crop (annually tilled or sugarcane) must have an HEL determination.

Because of subsequently updated mapping and/or technology, the soils mapping on which the HEL determinations were completed may or may not correspond with the digital soils information included in Toolkit. Also, one must consider that most HEL determinations were done in the office, without field review, and unless a person appeals the determination within the required timeframe (usually 30 days after the determination was issued), there are no further rights to appeal.

The FOTG must contain a copy of the frozen 01/01/1990 HEL soils mapping legend that includes all factors and calculation results used in deciding whether a soil map unit is H/P/NHEL (NonHEL) when office determinations were made (7 CFR 610, Subpart B). This is required by statute, regulation, and policy. Provide erodibility calculations in each soil survey area or county for each soil map unit, including all components of a complex, association, or undifferentiated group. Any fields with PHEL soil map units will be verified onsite to determine whether they are HEL or NHEL.

Changing or updating HEL designations (616.02)

When a field determination includes PHEL soil map units, the highly erodible land determination shall be verified through a field review to determine the correct LS factor value for that specific field in order to finalize the field HEL determination. If necessary, a new determination shall be issued when the field verification changes the original office HEL determination label.

Develop an HEL Soil Map Unit List when a completed soil survey is not available. If a soil survey was in progress or has been started since January 1, 1990, determine whether the soil map units added to the soil survey legend are HEL using the procedures set forth in the NFSAM, Section 511.03. If the map unit is HEL, it shall be appended to the Highly Erodible Soil Map Unit List of the FOTG (as of January 1, 1990), with appropriate documentation and explanation to support the addition. The factor values that are to be used for soil map units on new or modified soil survey legends are the factor values set forth in the FOTG that were in force as of January 1, 1990 (R, C, LS factor values for the USLE and K, I, and T factor values for the WEQ). The only HEL map units that will be appended to the Highly Erodible Soil Map Unit List are those that have been correlated since January 1, 1990, where the correlation has been completed according to the procedures in the National Soil Survey Handbook. Each HEL map unit appended to the Highly Erodible Map Unit List will be dated and approved by the State Soil Scientist.

The amended HEL Map Unit List will be filed in the appropriate FOTG. All previous copies of the HEL Map Unit List shall be filed as per instructions set forth in GM 120, Part 408. Mark the HEL Soil Map Unit List that has been replaced with the following: “Superseded by HEL Map Unit List dated [enter appropriate date].” Under no circumstances will the soil map units previously included on the January 1, 1990, Highly Erodible Map Unit List have their classification changed.

Fields with previous HELC determinations will not be changed by any additions of soil map units to the Highly Erodible Soil Map Unit List.

Any onsite PHEL determination should be conducted at the same scale as the existing soil survey. In cases where new HEL determinations are appealed by the participant due to potential incorrect soil mapping, in no case should the soil survey mapping be revised. Published soil survey information is not appealable (see NFSAM 510.2 [B] or 7 CFR 614.4).

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) procedure (616.03)

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) uses a different procedure for determining HEL. When CRP was first authorized, various methodologies were used in enrolling the acreage into CRP, including using the Land Capability Classifications of the soils in the field and using any cropland acreage with a 4T or more soil loss. After the 1990 Farm Bill, CRP eligibility was determined using the erodibility index methodology (EI) for making HEL determinations. It was generally held that if the field was HEL, it would qualify for CRP. The 1996 Farm Bill emphasized environmental benefits, such as timber, wildlife, and air quality, as well as EI and soil loss. That provided a “bidding” or “offer-index” development that still used the same requirements for calculating the EI as for HEL determinations.

However, after the 2002 Farm Bill, and due to the lack of adequate technical assistance funds from FSA to NRCS for making the land eligibility determinations, FSA decided to make land eligibility determinations using an automated system linked to, first, the 3SD soils database, and, now, the soils information that is available in Toolkit through the Soil Data Mart. This soils information does NOT use the frozen factor values required for making HEL determinations, nor does it use the specific soils mapping (with some exceptions) that was the basis for the original HEL determination. Further, the CRP land eligibility determinations are made by using an average of the three major soils in the acreage being offered into CRP. Therefore, the HEL determination made for HELC/WC compliance cannot be compared with the pseudo-HEL determination made for CRP eligibility because the two determinations are being completed under two different technologies and procedures.