Realizing the Promise of the FSRI
Soil and Water Conservation Society, 2004
Conservation Technical Services Infrastructure
Conservation Program Reform
A new Vision for Agriculture
Prior to the outset of congressional debate on the 2002 farm bill, the Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) developed a series of recommendations for the reform of conservation policy and programs based on ideas from five regional workshops. Those recommendations appeared in a report titled "Seeking Common Ground for Conservation, A Farm Bill Proposal: Responding to the Grassroots," published in June 2001.
Following final enactment of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (FSRI)—signed into law on May 13, 2002—SWCS issued another report analyzing how well the conservation provisions of FSRI measured up to the recommendations in the "seeking common ground" report. That "measure-up" report concluded that, despite its shortcomings, FSRI "creates the greatest opportunity for conservation on private land since 1985." The report went on to state that the additional conservation investment and authorities provided by FSRI could, if welldirected, make historic progress in managing environmental quality and ensuring the commercial viability of American agriculture.
Through this new report, SWCS hopes to contribute to the effort to realize the full promise of the conservation provisions of FSRI.
Much has been accomplished to realize that potential since May 13, 2002. Most of the funding for conservation programs—through fiscal year 2004—has been realized. Programs funded from the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) have received more than $2.5 billion, about 94 percent of the funding FSRI provided. About half the new acres authorized for the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) have been made available for enrollment, and sign-ups in three critical components of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)—the continuous CRP sign-up (CCRP), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), and Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP)—have been promising. The conservation technical services infrastructure—the foundation of conservation and environmental management on working land—has been strengthened. About $678 million in CCC funds have been provided for technical assistance, and the technical service provider (TSP) program is a clear, if small, step toward the 21st century infrastructure needed to realize the full promise of FSRI.
Rules for at least 10 programs and provisions have been promulgated, program guidance produced, training completed, and outreach to producers and partners undertaken. Most of the basic conservation components of FSRI have been put in place in the two years since the law’s enactment, and conservation activity on the ground has accelerated.
Despite substantial progress since May 13, 2002, much more needs to be done to realize the full promise of FSRI. Four opportunities, in particular, deserve the attention of policymakers and program administrators in the coming months.
Fully fund conservation programs
The administration should request and Congress should provide full funding for all U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. The promise FSRI made to taxpayers, producers, and the environment can only be kept if the conservation funding promised by FSRI is fully realized. The president’s fiscal year 2005 budget request, unfortunately, does not keep that promise. Congress should fully fund all USDA conservation programs in fiscal year 2005 and succeeding fiscal years over the life of FSRI. The greatest opportunities to realize the promise of FSRI include: (1) strategic increases in the Conservation Technical Assistance program, (2) a swift, thoughtful ramp-up of CSP to the nationwide entitlement program it was intended to be, (3) full funding for EQIP and WHIP, (4) establishment of a 5-million-acre holdback under the CRP cap for CCRP, CREP, and FWP, followed by a determined effort to accelerate program participation, and (5) enrolling enough acres in WRP each year to achieve the authorized acreage goal by the end of fiscal year 2007.
Build a conservation technical services infrastructure
Building a conservation technical services infrastructure is the single greatest opportunity to realize the full potential of FSRI. Congress should amend the CCC charter act to exempt technical assistance from the Section-11 spending cap and end the confusion created by conflicting interpretations of congressional intent regarding use of CCC funds for technical assistance. The unsatisfactory solutions to date are short-changing taxpayers, producers, and the environment. Savings from projected outlays in commodity subsidies because of improving prices should be used to offset any increased spending the Congressional Budget Office may attribute to exempting technical assistance from the Section-11 cap.
More important, USDA should produce a coordinated investment plan to construct a technical services infrastructure for the 21st century. The increase in funding from CCC for technical assistance, coupled with the TSP initiative, creates an unprecedented opportunity to build the technical services infrastructure essential to meeting the demands of conservation and environmental management on working land. CCC funds should be coupled with strategic increases in discretionary spending for research, education, and the conservation technical assistance program. Those resources should be allocated to federal, state, and local governmental agencies; nongovernmental organizations; and the private sector based on a realistic assessment of the potential for each sector to contribute to an infrastructure tailored to meet the site-specific needs of local communities.
Reform conservation programs to enhance environmental management
For five decades, USDA’s conservation programs have focused on conserving the soil, water, and biological resources that support the productivity of U.S. agriculture. Now, conservationists have another challenge—managing agriculture’s impact on the environment. The approaches used to implement conservation programs must be reformed to meet the environmental management challenge.
Much more program funding should be directed to place-based projects that strive to enhance specific environmental objectives important to local communities and simultaneously advance state and national objectives. Clean water, clear air, and abundant fish and wildlife populations will only be achieved when a critical number of producers within a particular geographic area implement and maintain the key conservation practices and systems that will, in the aggregate, produce the environmental benefits taxpayers are seeking. NRCS should allocate $400 million in EQIP funds in fiscal year 2005—about one-third of the FSRI $1.2 billion funding level—to place-based initiatives driven by watershed or other place-based strategies to achieve specific targets for enhancing soil, water, air and/or fish and wildlife habitat.
The balance of EQIP funds—about $800 million or two-thirds of the FSRI funding level—should be a down payment on a base conservation effort available everywhere and to every producer. Meanwhile, CSP should be ramped up as swiftly and thoughtfully as possible to become the primary base conservation effort in the United States. That base effort should be designed to ensure the sustainability of the resource base; solve acute, but isolated problems; encourage widespread adoption of essential practices; and reward commitment to stewardship. Above and beyond the base effort, the nation needs a focused effort that directs additional resources to place-based projects that secure the critical mass of participation in key locations required to produce tangible improvements in environmental quality. As CSP ramps up, additional EQIP funding should be allocated to place-based projects. That leaves CRP, WRP, and other land retirement programs to protect and restore sensitive landscapes and critical habitats. The result will be a balanced portfolio of conservation programs better suited to meeting the range of conservation and environmental management challenges agriculture faces.
Ramp up CSP thoughtfully and quickly
Participants in the "seeking common ground" workshops wanted to create a new option in farm policy that would base taxpayer support on conservation and environmental management rather than on commodity production—a policy that would be available to all producers of all kinds of crops and livestock, including those producers who were already investing in conservation and producing environmental benefits. CSP is an opportunity to make what participants referred to as "a new vision for agriculture" real.
CSP should be ramped up as quickly as possible and in a way that emphasizes the unique contributions CSP brings to the conservation portfolio—rewarding good actors, encouraging conservation systems rather than single-practice solutions, and emphasizing management-intensive rather than structural solutions—while also managing budget exposure. The strategy used to ramp up CSP should depart substantially from the approach outlined in USDA’s proposed rule.
USDA should issue a supplemental rule that (1) provides the secretary with the flexibility and authority to set criteria, standards, and priorities for annual signups in order to match participation with available technical and financial resources, (2) gives first priority for participation to producers currently meeting the minimum eligibility requirements for Tier III and who are willing to do more to enhance the environmental benefits produced on their operations, and (3) emphasizes payments tied to installation and maintenance of management-intensive annual practices and the level of environmental performance achieved by the participant. Additional components and avenues for participation should be added in succeeding years on the basis of available funds, technical resources, and what is learned about potential workload, participation, and environmental performance.
1. The administration should request and Congress should provide full funding for all USDA conservation programs.
2. If congressional action on appropriation measures is delayed, the administration should use its authority to apportion CCC funds for conservation technical and financial assistance at the beginning of each fiscal year to facilitate a more effective delivery of that assistance to farmers and ranchers.
3. Congress should amend the Commodity Credit Corporation charter act to exempt technical assistance from the Section-11 spending cap.
4. USDA should produce a coordinated investment plan to construct a technical services infrastructure for the 21st century.
5. USDA must increase funding for place-based projects to achieve a critical mass of conservation action that will result in tangible environmental improvements.
6. USDA should implement its financial assistance programs in a way that creates a balanced conservation portfolio of programs.
7. NRCS should take full advantage of the Partnerships and Cooperation provision of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.
8. USDA should create a unified planning, contracting, and sign-up process for all conservation financial assistance programs.
9. USDA and NRCS should work to improve conservation intelligence as a basis for establishing clear, achievable conservation goals for the nation’s working land.
10. NRCS should quickly and thoughtfully ramp-up CSP in a way that emphasizes the program’s unique feature and integrates CSP into the conservation program portfolio as the primary source of financial assistance for a base conservation effort.
11. NRCS should take full advantage of the Conservation Innovation Grants Program in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.
Soil and Water Conservation Society. 2004. Realizing the Promise of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002: How Implementation of the Conservation Provisions Measures Up. Ankeny, IA: Soil and Water Conservation Society.