Policy Pulse: Struggles Continue for Conservation Compliance Enforcement

Sediment_Tim McCabe USDA-NRCS

Implementation of the Farm Bill’s basic conservation requirements continues to be an uphill battle, as demonstrated in U.S. Department of Agriculture audits that show lax and inconsistent enforcement protocols. Moreover, a bill introduced in the U.S. House threatens to undermine wetland protections even further.

Under the 2014 Farm Bill, if producers wish to continue receiving $14 billion in annual federal subsidies, they must certify that they have not drained a wetland and have a conservation plan in place for highly-erodible lands. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is tasked with auditing these certifications.

Unfortunately, recent reports from USDA’s Office of the Inspector General reveal that those audits have been less than solid. A report released in April showed that many programs subject to conservation compliance were excluded from audits in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, audits never occurred in major farm states, including Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. The Inspector General followed up with a second report on June 28 that showed problems with how NRCS addresses wetland determinations when there are discrepancies between aerial imagery, historic wetland maps, and field conditions.

That same day, U.S. Representatives from key prairie pothole states introduced a bill that would make it even more challenging for NRCS to implement conservation compliance. The legislation (H.R. 5605), introduced by Representatives Kristi Noem (SD), Kevin Cramer (ND), and Collin Peterson (MN), would impose an unreasonable 60-day deadline for NRCS to conduct wetland determinations; after that time, a producer would receive more leeway to move forward with drainage. The bill also exposes NRCS to more litigation on wetland determinations.

To compound problems, the bill does nothing to address concerns raised in the Inspector General reports. Instead, it creates further challenges and hoops for NRCS, sacrifices wetland determination accuracy for the sake of expediency, and erodes one of the only protections for ecologically critical wetlands on agricultural landscapes.

It’s not all bad news, though. The Inspector General reports outline recommendations for NRCS to improve conservation compliance, such as internal agreements on how to share data among USDA agencies and more detailed guidance on wetland determinations.

The Izaak Walton League will continue to work with partners to support adoption of the Inspector General’s recommendations and ensure short-sighted legislation does not put natural resources on farms at even greater risk.