Congressional Budget Office estimates for the Conservation Security Program jumped from $2 billion in 2002 to $8.9 billion in 2004. The overwhelming price increase forced USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to limit CSP participation by selected watersheds. A new report helps clarify the reasons behind the price jump and how to keep costs down.
CSP is the first conservation program that rewards past conservation actions and encourages future ones. Farm bill writers envisioned it as a national program, rewarding all farmers, not a random few in selected watersheds.
The Government Accountability Office, Conservation Security Program: Despite Cost Controls, Improved USDA Management Is Needed to Ensure Proper Payments and Reduce Duplication with Other Programs, determined (1) why CSP cost estimates generally increased; (2) what authority USDA has to control costs and what cost control measures exist; and (3) what measures exist to prevent duplication between CSP and other USDA conservation programs and what duplication, if any, has occurred.
Besides limiting enrollment to priority watersheds, NRCS also has established certain CSP payment limits at levels below the maximum allowed by the statute.
GAO explains that "efforts to control CSP spending could be improved by addressing weaknesses in internal controls and inconsistencies in the wildlife habitat assessment criteria that NRCS state offices use, in part, to determine producer eligibility for the highest CSP payment level. Inconsistencies in these criteria also may reduce CSP's conservation benefits."
The farm bill prohibits duplicate payments for the same practice on the same land made through CSP and another USDA conservation program. Various other farm bill provisions also reduce the potential for duplication. For example, as called for under the farm bill, CSP may reward producers for conservation actions they have already taken, whereas other programs generally provide assistance to encourage new actions or to idle or retire environmentally sensitive land from production.
In addition, CSP regulations establish higher minimum eligibility requirements for CSP than for other programs. "However, despite these legislative and regulatory provisions, the possibility that producers can receive duplicate payments remains because of similarities in the conservation actions financed through these programs," GAO says. NRCS also does not have a comprehensive process to preclude or identify such duplicate payments. In reviewing NRCS's payments data, GAO found a number of examples of duplicate payments, according to the report.
GAO recommends, in part, that NRCS review its state offices' wildlife habitat assessment criteria and develop a process to preclude and identify duplicate payments. GAO reports that NRCS generally agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.