USDA Wants Input on Soil, Water Conservation Programs

Several changes proposed in EQIP.

Published on: Feb 19, 2009

Interim rules for many of the soil, water, wetlands, wildlife and land easement programs have been released and USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service is asking for comment from farmers and ag organizations.

Steve Chick, state conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Nebraska, says public comments will be used to develop final rules, he adds.

The interim rules open for comment through March 16 for Environmental Quality Incentives Program, March 17 for Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and Farm and Ranchlands Program and March 23 for Grassland Reserve Program. Rules can be viewed at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/farmbill/2008/index.html.

Rules address the following:

- The Environmental Quality Incentives Program is a voluntary conservation program that provides technical assistance and payments to help crop and livestock producers address environmental concerns through conservation improvements on agricultural lands. Under the amended EQIP, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers as well as beginning and limited resource producers are authorized to receive a slightly higher payment on the cost of installing or implementing a conservation practice. These producers also can receive advance payments of up to 30% of the anticipated costs to implement a conservation practice.

EQIP was expanded to include the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program. AWEP offers financial and technical assistance to help farmers and ranchers carry out water enhancement activities that conserve surface and groundwater and improve water quality on cropland, pasture, grassland and rangeland. Under this new program, NRCS can contract directly with agricultural producers who are included in approved partner proposals. A Request for Proposals for sponsors of targeted water projects was published in the Federal Register recently. Proposals must be submitted by March 2, 2009.

The Wetlands Reserve Program provides technical and financial assistance to eligible landowners to address wetland, wildlife habitat, soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on private agricultural land. The program provides landowners financial incentives to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property.

The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners to develop and improve high quality habitat for fish and wildlife on private agricultural lands, non-industrial private forest lands, and Indian lands. NRCS can pay up to 75% of the cost to apply or install conservation practices for permanent fish and wildlife habitat. Agreements of 15 years or longer are available for essential plant and animal habitat. The 2008 Farm Bill reauthorized and amended WHIP. There are now three categories of eligible land for this program-private agricultural lands, non-industrial private forest lands and Indian lands. The new farm bill excludes non-agricultural lands and publicly owned lands (federal, state, county or local) from eligibility.

NRCS administers Farm Ranch Protection Program, protects productive agricultural land. It provides funding to purchase conservation easements to limit conversion of farm and ranch lands to non-agricultural uses. NRCS establishes cooperative agreements with non-governmental organizations, states, federally recognized tribes and local governments to support their efforts to protect land in agricultural use. The farm or ranch land must contain productive soils or historic archaeological sites, or support a state or local program policy. The program's purpose changed from protecting topsoil to protecting agricultural use.

The Grassland Reserve Program is a voluntary program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance grasslands on their property. NRCS and USDA Farm Service Agency jointly administer the program which helps landowners restore and protect grassland, rangeland, pastureland, shrub land and certain other lands and provides assistance for rehabilitating grasslands.

Go to regulations.gov and follow the instructions for sending comments electronically; or mail to: Financial Assistance Programs Division, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW., Room 5237S, Washington, DC 20250–2890; or Fax: (202) 720–4265.