NRCS Chief Weller: Regulatory certainty could be a game changer

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



One of biggest new buzz terms in the conservation community - certainty - could be a “game-changer,” a paradigm-shifter, National Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller said in a recent interview. “Farmers understand they're part of conservation, but they don't want to have federal government to tell them how to do it,” he said. Regulatory certainty programs, however, give them a way “to be part of it.”

Most importantly, certainty gives farmers - long maligned by green groups for their water- and pesticide-intensive work - a way to express their commitment to stewardship, Weller said.

He explains the new approach to conservation this way: “If a farmer voluntarily implements conservation to improve water quality or soil quality or wildlife, they should get something in return. And that's credit. The premise is, NRCS will come on your [operation] and we'll do a conservation assessment. We already have a cookbook of conservation practices that are the best for [the conservation issues on your land.]”

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If a producer implements a program and it passes muster - through an update, “like a doctor visiting your ranch,” Weller stressed, not an inspection - his or her operation is guaranteed to be in line with regulations periods sometimes as long as 10 years.

But the tricky thing about certainty programs, at least for those in government, is that they are voluntary - no one can be compelled to create and follow a conservation plan. That appeals to many farmers, especially those who are rankled by surprise inspections by federal, state and local government entities. But it also means a program's success lies in the hands of those who are executing it: If the right mechanisms aren't there, the programs will go bust.

Enter the National Association for Conservation District's (NACD) 2014 Annual Meeting, this year in Anaheim, Calif. During a session Monday, leaders from a number of states shared secrets to their own local certainty programs. They vary in size and scope, said Bill Berry, an NACD communications specialist. But they share at least five principles: They're voluntary, confidential, incentive-based, and they include verification steps and give farmers a guarantee that if they play by the rules, they'll be free of time- and money-intensive regulations and paperwork for a specified amount of time.

State programs currently exist in Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Texas and Utah. But a review of certainty programs this year by NACD and the National Conservation District Employees Association (NCDEA) - what Berry calls “Magical Certainty Tour 2013” - discovered a number of programs, sometimes restricted to just a county or two.

Meanwhile, other programs wait in the wings. Arkansas, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin are developing their own certainty programs.

Luckily, a “starting out guide” for certainty exists, Berry said in Anaheim Monday. 

First, those hoping to run certainty programs have to decide what kind of resource they'd like to protect. The concept of certainty grew out of discussions surrounding the Endangered Species Act, so many programs are established around protecting habitats for specific species. Other areas of focus include water quality.

The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) is an example of a species-protection program. It was, in fact, the first certainty program, established by NRCS in 2010 as a partnership between that federal agency and others in local government, universities, conservation groups and businesses. In cooperation with Fish and Wildlife Service, SGI helps farmers invest in conservation strategies to protect 78 million acres of intact sagebrush for the - you guessed it - sage grouse, which is in danger of landing a spot on the Endangered Species List. The stringent rules that come along with listing could be a serious hindrance for farmers and ranchers in the 11 states covered by the SGI, meaning they have a real incentive to protect the sage grouse.

Another serious incentive: The Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to give participants in a program 30 years worth of assurance against over-regulation, even if the species is eventually listed as endangered. Farmers, then, can keep doing what they're doing, as long as they're following their conservation plans.

As in SGI, program designers must come up with great incentives to encourage participation. Other ideas floated in California Monday include deals to double federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds or provide Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance for those participating in the program. 

Certainty programs also have to find willing partnerships, Berry said, and that often includes bringing in businesses. In Michigan, for example, the state Farm Bureau decided to underwrite county-by-county certainty education, in the hopes of getting more producers involved. The Sage Grouse Initiative gets its initial funding from the farm bill, but $145 million in NRCS funds turned into $215 million with help from local partners, NRCS says.

The relatively novel concept of certainty, however, won't have much success without the say-so of the regulatory community. There are some signs that regulators have signed on: The EPA in 2012 blessed a program in Minnesota to protect the state's watersheds, promising 10 years of certainty to participants. “Farmers will know the rules of the game while the state, EPA and the public will know that this program will lead to cleaner water,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the time. The Minnesota program is still under development.

But voluntary certainty still has to win over more regulators, and NRCS, which envisions itself as a go-between for farmers and agencies like EPA, says it can only do so much.

“To the extent that we can, we try to provide advice,” Weller said. “We are an advocate for agriculture. And those regulatory agencies do take into account the expertise that we bring and the suggestions that we bring. But in the end, it's their authority and their responsibility.”

Still, the USDA agency cheers on program proponents, who in California swapped notes on finding partners and fat funding streams.

Certainty could work for the entire country, Weller said, “really obviate the need for regulation, really head it off at the pass…We think this is a huge win for wildlife (and habitats), but also for agriculture.”

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