WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2015 - Jason Weller, chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, sat down with Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview recently to give his take on the living legacy of NRCS programs, and to explain why he thinks voluntary, incentive-based conservation can be just as effective, if not more, than regulatory action.

Case in point: The sage grouse

In September, the Obama administration decided not to list the sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, allowing private landowners and industry to avoid federal land use regulations across 165 million acres in the bird’s 11-state Western range.

Weller said “all the potential was there” for a sage grouse listing that would affect the West like the ESA listing of the spotted owl did in the Pacific Northwest. “It could have been just as impactful . . . except on a land area 12 times bigger.”

But “it didn’t happen,” he said, “because ranchers stepped up” to protect and restore sage grouse habitat, and the conservation title of the 2014 farm bill helped them do it.

NRCS invested almost $300 million over the past five years in the Sage Grouse Initiative, a project that many regard as the primary reason the bird was not listed. Western states and the private sector pitched in another $130 million. SGI is now protecting about 4.4 million acres of sage grouse range with the help of 1,100 ranchers through conservation easements and voluntary habitat restoration programs.

By 2018, NRCS projects that USDA, its partners and Western states will have invested approximately $760 million and conserved 8 million acres to protect the sage grouse – “a massive land area, bigger than most states,” Weller said, all because of “the power of conservation and agriculture.”

“I think we’ve proven at scale now,” that voluntary action works, and “not just with the sage grouse,” but also with delistings or avoided listings for other animals including the New England cottontail, the Louisiana black bear, the Oregon chub and the Arctic fluvial grayling, “all just in the last 13 months,” Weller said.
“There doesn’t always have to be this conflict between wildlife or environmental quality and agricultural production,” he said.
Agriculture’s water quality initiatives are working

Weller says there’s a place for some environmental regulation, but if the regulatory landscape for producers becomes “more and more complex . . . it will either be uneconomic” for farmers to farm, or they “just won’t be able to comply.”

That’s why Weller said voluntary conservation is so valuable to agriculture. He said it can produce comparable environmental outcomes as regulation, but without alienating farmers or diminishing their productivity.

In the Chesapeake Bay, “agriculture really gets it,” he said. According to a recent NRCS assessment, over 90 percent of the 6 million acres of cropland within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed has at least one conservation practice in place, whether it be conservation till, no till, grass buffers, or terraces, and NRCS “didn’t pay for most of that,” farmers did, Weller said. Farmers are going beyond requirements set by EPA under a Bay cleanup plan, he said. Producers in the bay watershed are “making huge headway” on controlling nitrogen and sediment runoff, and while “we have a little bit of a ways to go” on limiting phosphorous pollution, “overall, agriculture has a very positive story,” he said.


—Within the Mississippi River Basin, “I don’t think anyone would say we’re at where we need to be for… water quality,” but that’s changing, Weller said. In Arkansas’ Illinois River, NRCS partnered with the local poultry industry – through the agency’s Mississippi River Basin Initiative – to reduce farm runoff. Within five years, the state delisted parts of the river from EPA’s 303d impaired list, which identifies waters where required pollution controls aren’t sufficient to attain or maintain water quality standards.

Similarly, Oklahoma used EPA non-point source program funding to set up water monitoring stations along its impaired streams, then measured the effect NRCS-funded treatments – like buffers and improved tillage installed on agricultural land – had on the water’s turbidity, pathogen counts and sediment loads. Ultimately, these voluntary efforts led to the delisting of more than forty 303d streams in the last decade.

The water quality challenges in the Western Lake Erie Basin are more “complicated,” he said. This year’s algal bloom in Lake Erie was the largest to date – about the size of New York City, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – because unusually heavy rains in the spring helped to transport high volumes of nitrogen and phosphorous from farms and other sources to the lake and its tributaries.


—Weller said “biblical” rains in Ohio led to some agricultural fertilizer contributing to a “bloom” of cyanobacteria, but he noted that producers in the area have “done a really good job of managing” phosphorous runoff. According to NRCS data, the average farmer in the area loses less than a pound of phosphorous per acre, and over 93 percent of all the phosphorous applied as fertilizer leaves the field in grain, not through the soil or water.

“They’re being hyper-efficient” in reducing runoff, Weller said, “but yet it’s not enough. It’s going to take a high level of management and a high level of conservation” going forward to see future water quality improvements.

What’s next for NRCS in the new year?

Weller said NRCS, an arm of the government for more than 80 years, is all about “helping (producers) make more money, so they’re economically sustainable” and “making sure that the resources can be productive year after year.” In keeping with its mission to assist private landowners with conservation, NRCS will be adding a new tool in January to help farmers and ranchers optimize inputs, improve soil quality and meet specific landowner conservation goals.

It’s called the Resource Stewardship Evaluation, which combines the predictive power of all the modeling tools the agency uses now to measure sediment and nutrient runoff, pesticide drift, and irrigation efficiency on farms. Weller said the RSE produces “actionable information” for landowners and “a data file” that producers can use to gain certification for other USDA programs. And, he added, it will only take an NRCS field agent a few hours to complete.


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