NRCS likely to get full $4.4 billion budget requested

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 27, 2015 - House ag appropriators expressed support as they heard Jason Weller, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service's (NRCS), explain the agency's $4.4 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2016.

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Weller, a former staff member for the panel, said his main priorities include modernizing and strengthening the agency through staff reorganization and system upgrades and enhancing the agency's “scientific and technical capabilities,” namely through the Conservation Effects Assessment Project. He described the program as a “a world class, only one of its kind” project that quantifies conservation returns on a continental scale.

Chairman Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., expressed approval for Weller's plan.

“NRCS is about to embark on a significant restructuring that will strengthen the integrity of its programs and (financial and accounting) systems (that will) ensure its legacy of science-based and locally implemented conservation continues,” Aderholt said in his opening remarks. “This legacy is worth defending.”

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The Obama administration requested $1.031 billion in discretionary spending for NRCS. Programs mandated by Congress will also require an additional $3.4 billion.

Weller told lawmakers his agency “empowers” agricultural producers to make conservation investments on their farms and ranches on a landscape-scale. He also noted that NRCS had already begun the process of restructuring its human relations department - a move authorized by Congress in 2013 - in an effort to better deliver services.

That reorganization would not include any layoffs or changes in pay or location, but would group related staff into teams that “allow them to be the experts they are” instead of being expected to wear “multiple hats” or be the “jacks-of-all-trades,” he said.

Weller assured the committee that NRCS would use drone technology, as permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) new rule, for remote-sensing data collection and “in a way that protects privacy and ensures landowners that we are not there as a regulatory component.” 

Weller also said the agency had implemented all programs required by the 2014 farm bill on time, and finalized all rules that the legislation required. 

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