Last year they ran aerial spot-checks in certain parts of the state. This year NRCS is flying the entire state of Iowa in May, monitoring fields for conservation compliance from the air. "We will carry out a statewide effort this month, conducting conservation compliance reviews using aerial photography," says Richard Sims, state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Des Moines.
After piloting a similar project last year in western Iowa, NRCS officials have expanded the project to all tracts randomly selected for annual conservation compliance reviews across most of the state, he says.
According to NRCS, last year's pilot project included 635 sites in 40 counties. This year officials estimate 1,620 sites will be reviewed in about 90 counties. NRCS will send letters to all landowners with randomly selected sites before flights begin, says Sims.
Aerial images offer a much better view to see soil erosion damage in fields
"In last year's pilot project, we found the aerial images provided a much better vantage point to see damaged waterways and ephemeral gully erosion, both top natural resource concerns in our state," says Marty Adkins, state resource conservationist.
Instead of staff taking photographs, this year NRCS will contract to use special planes equipped with GPS-synched, high-resolution cameras attached to the belly of the craft. "We feel this will be much more efficient," explains Adkins. "We went through several teams of volunteers to complete last year's pilot project. All the banking and tight turning of the aircraft that is required to get good photographs took a lot of time."
If this year's photography shows no signs of compliance issues, NRCS will notify landowners shortly after the photos and conservation plans are reviewed. If the photography reveals potential issues, a conservation compliance team member will conduct a full-field review, using documentation from the landowner's conservation plan. The field review will include, at minimum, a check for crop residue levels on the soil surface and will also check for ephemeral gully erosion. Landowners may request to be present during on-site reviews, said Adkins.
If a field is found to be out of compliance, landowner may appeal initial finding
NRCS will be using conservation compliance teams to ensure no employee will complete a status review for land in their home county, says Adkins. These area-based teams will also conduct on-the-ground compliance reviews on tracts with variances from previous years, whistleblowers, loan participants, and others.
When tracts of land are found out of compliance, the team leader will send letters to participants no later than July 13, notes Adkins. Landowners may appeal the initial technical finding to the Farm Service Agency.
The 1985 Farm Bill requires NRCS to check a random sampling of highly erodible fields each year to ensure farmers are following the provisions in their conservation plans. Conservation compliance is required for maintaining eligibility for USDA programs. For more information about conservation and wetland compliance please visit www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov.