Steve Kline

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posted in: Farm Bill

May 26, 2016

Watchdog Report Indicates Checks Were Written But On-Farm Conservation Was Never Verified

USDA’s Inspector General points to botched implementation of compliance checks that ensure real benefits go to fish and wildlife habitat on private lands

After thousands of hours of work, hundreds of meetings with Congressional staff, and three years of shared effort with colleagues that had become like family, I poured a tall Maker’s Mark when the president signed the 2014 Farm Bill at a special ceremony in Michigan. The law included bipartisan language that extended conservation compliance to the federal crop insurance program, the importance of which would be difficult to overstate. Was it the perfect compliance provision? Honestly, no. But politics is still the art of the possible, and I believe it was the strongest provision possible.

After all of that effort from so many folks, it is more frustrating than usual to hear from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) watchdog agency that the provision the TRCP prioritized over all others has not been implemented with the vigor it requires. This should not only alarm sportsmen-conservationists but also the American taxpayer.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

For the uninitiated, conservation compliance can be explained like this: It’s a way for taxpayers to be sure that, in exchange for farm support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. Conservation compliance has applied to almost all USDA support programs since 1985, and the 2014 Farm Bill expanded compliance requirements to the federal crop insurance program, which has grown over the years to be the biggest farm support program. Conservation compliance is not onerous for farmers, most of whom have been subject to the requirements for years.

But a report issued in March by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which serves as the internal watchdog at the USDA, outlined a serious problem with the enforcement of conservation compliance. Many tracts of land that were subject to compliance were not being included in the random checks performed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In fact, in 2015, the first year after the new Farm Bill was passed, ten states—including major agricultural hubs like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota—had zero tracts subject to random compliance checks. That’s right. Zero. In Iowa!

The report mostly points to a lack of coordination between several USDA agencies, and it cites the need for a “Memorandum of Understanding” between those agencies to ensure a better universe of data and that an actual human being at each agency is held responsible for appropriate implementation. Frankly, these are typical shortcomings of a large bureaucracy that no one would describe as nimble. But what is at stake is critically important: water quality and the health of potentially innumerable wetlands, not to mention the continued defensibility of these financial support programs to the American taxpayer.

But let’s get to the main thrust of the problem: a bureaucratic lack of desire. The USDA is a department that for a hundred years has been in the business of writing checks to producers. Its stock-in-trade is financial incentives that smooth out the inherent risks of agriculture, making life more predictable for American farmers—and that is a laudable thing. This incentive-based business model is why the USDA is still a relatively popular federal entity; as a result, USDA finds it difficult to risk losing the popularity that comes with spreading the wealth. It is nice to be loved.

But the law must be enforced, and the USDA has a responsibility—not just to agricultural producers, but also to the American taxpayers who have invested billions in farmland conservation and expect plentiful clean water in return.

We work hard on Capitol Hill to make sure that the laws passed by Congress aim for the best results possible for fish and wildlife habitat. That can be an all-consuming task. But we cannot forget that the job continues for years after the ink on those laws is dry. For the duration of this five-year Farm Bill, and as we turn our attention to the next one, the TRCP will continue our work; we must close the gaps in compliance enforcement that are unnecessarily costing us our wetlands, water quality, and hard-earned wages.

3 Responses to “Watchdog Report Indicates Checks Were Written But On-Farm Conservation Was Never Verified”

  1. Bob Keener

    I noted that the agency agreed to form an MOU and an interagency working group (IWG), by January and April 2016. It would be great if TRCP could follow up to see if either of these recommendations were achieved on schedule and, if so, get a copy of the language of the MOU and the IWG charter, schedule, etc. It would be optimum to understand how success is defined and what measures there might be to track the performance of the efforts associated with the initiative(s).

    In closing, I would like to highlight that the IG’s recommendations don’t address the need for a defined plan of action, with dates/milestones, etc. It would be relatively easy for the USDA to get a vaguely worded MOU written and agreed to as well as to form an IWG without committing itself to substantively carrying out on the ground enforcement/oversight.

    I would ask that the TRCP work to follow up with the USDA to see if anything of substance has been put in place.

  2. Greg Munther

    Are there quantifiable standards or metrics associated with compliance? Without measureable standards the good old boy ag network closest to the ground will continue.

  3. Birdie moose

    I live in Nevada were no royalty is charged on extraction of gold due to the General mining act of 1872, no fee is charged for the mass amounts of water taken and only five to ten dollars an acre is charge for mining leases. Three of the largest mining corporations in the U.S. are Canadian that receive the largest ranch subsides in the country. I believe the Natures Conservancy to be a shadow/shell organization for environmentally destructive corporate agendas. All you have to do is look at their major donors, follow the money honey!

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Kristyn Brady

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posted in: Farm Bill

May 18, 2016

House Passes Dangerous Sage-Grouse Rider in Defense Bill

 

State and federal progress to keep iconic Western gamebird off endangered species list could be undone by Congress

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act. Contained in this ‘must-pass’ legislation that funds America’s military readiness was language that would force the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to abandon successful sage-grouse conservation plans. These federal plans resulted from years of collaboration and millions of taxpayer dollars that successfully kept the sage-grouse off the Endangered Species Act list.

“Sportsmen across the country are very disappointed with the House’s action to play politics with our national defense by inserting unrelated and detrimental language about sage-grouse conservation into the bill,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “If language contained in the House bill were to become law, it would throw into question decades of statutory precedent, scores of environmental laws, and the subsequent legal decisions around those laws. This legislation is a Trojan horse for transferring public lands to the states and stands to have lasting repercussions beyond curtailing conservation efforts in sagebrush country.”

Opponents of the 2015 conservation victory would rather see state-developed plans implemented instead. The shift in management, elimination of judicial review, and long-term delay of any future listing decision erodes the implementation of bedrock conservation statutes—such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. While many of the 11 western state plans are good, some do not fully address threats to sage-grouse and need to be complimented by federal plans.

“Success for the greater sage-grouse was achieved in 2015 through the combination of strong conservation plans on federal public lands, coupled with state conservation plans and voluntary efforts from private landowners,” said Steve Williams, President of the Wildlife Management Institute. “Future success depends heavily on immediate and consistent implementation of all these combined efforts. Congressional efforts to eliminate federal plans would negate effectiveness of all efforts and result in a waste of both state and federal funds expended to date.”

“We are disappointed to see this effort by the House to snatch defeat from the jaws of a victory that has already been achieved,” said Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever. “The eleven western states, federal agencies, and private landowners must continue with their unprecedented efforts to conserve and manage sage-grouse. Congress simply needs to fund implementation of these combined efforts, especially private landowner efforts to conserve sage-grouse and 350 other sagebrush-dependent species.”

Sportsmen organizations continue to communicate to lawmakers that the best thing they can do for sage-grouse is ensure that adequate funding goes toward implementation of federal plans, that necessary resources go to the states, and that private lands conservation continues. If implemented, these plans would be a windfall for habitat of species like mule deer and pronghorns, not to mention a boon to sportsmen. Undoing those conservation plans might be the best way to ensure a listing—bad news for just about everyone.

The Senate is expected to consider their version of the NDAA—which currently does not include the detrimental sage-grouse provisions – sometime next week. “This issue has no link to military readiness and it’s simply playing politics to suggest otherwise,” continued Fosburgh. “Our community looks forward to working with the Senate to ensure that these provisions to undermine sage-grouse conservation are kept out of their version of the legislation.”

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posted in: Farm Bill

April 4, 2016

Good News for Landowners During That Other Spring Season — Tax Season

Donors of conservation easements can take advantage of this new tax incentive right away 

Every spring, men and women across America experience an overwhelming sense of nervous anticipation. It motivates them to throw open drawers, haul boxes down from the attic, and gather all the essentials ahead of the big day. No, we’re not talking about the spring turkey opener or the Mid-Atlantic shad run—we’re talking about tax season.

Image courtesy of Matt Wells, Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust.

Ok, sure, filing your taxes isn’t nearly as fun or exciting as springtime in the outdoors, but there’s positive news for landowners, fish, and wildlife this tax season. We’re not tax experts*, but with less than two weeks before April 15, this may be one incentive you need to know about.

In December 2015, Congress made permanent a federal tax incentive for the donation of conservation easements to encourage landowners to conserve important natural resources while retaining ownership of their property. The law now adds the following benefits for donors:

  • The incentive raises the annual deduction a donor can receive for donating a conservation easement from 30 to 50 percent of his or her income.
  • Qualifying farmers and ranchers can deduct up to 100 percent of their income each year.
  • Donors can carry forward the tax deductions for a donated easement for 15 years, up from just five years.

(Our partners at the Land Trust Alliance put together a handy brochure that explains the changes in more detail—here’s where you can view it online.)

If you donated an easement last year, the incentive is retroactive to January 1, 2015, meaning you can take advantage of this new deduction right away. And if you own property and want to protect your lands and waters, you should consider donating a conservation easement in 2016. Conservation easements can be very flexible; they are tailor-made to the needs of each landowner and each piece of land, allowing you to continue to hunt and fish, farm, ranch, and harvest timber, as long as you preserve the land for natural habitat, open space, historical importance, or outdoor recreation or education.

And the added bonus for hunters and anglers? You can feel good knowing that your children and grandchildren will enjoy this land, and the fish or wildlife it supports, just as you did.

 *TRCP doesn’t handle conservation easements, but many of our partners do. Organizations like Land Trust Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited can help you get started. And, of course, you should contact your tax attorney or accountant for further guidance. 

Ed Arnett

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posted in: Farm Bill

November 10, 2015

Are the BLM’s Sage Grouse Conservation Plans Really Worse Than an ESA Listing?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) recent decision not to list the range-wide population of greater sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was perhaps the greatest collaborative conservation effort in the history of contemporary wildlife management—but it didn’t happen overnight or by accident. The years of planning, monitoring, research, and coordination among state and federal agencies, private landowners, and many other stakeholders have also resulted in a new model for conservation.

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

But rather than celebrate a great achievement, stakeholders at both ends of the special-interest spectrum have proclaimed that listing the bird would have been a better choice. Some in the environmental community have argued that far more should have been done to strengthen protections for the species and believe a listing is still warranted. Meanwhile, some industry proponents and members of Congress have cried out that a listing would have been better than the “draconian” federal overreach they see in the BLM’s amended land-use plans that will impact a majority of the bird’s remaining range.

All of this rhetoric makes for good soundbites and headlines, but would we really be better off? Is it possible that compliance with the proactive conservation measures needed to avoid a listing is actually a harsher reality than a listing itself? Let’s look at the facts about what could have happened under the law.

Project Management

Under a listing scenario, anyone with plans for federal land designated as sage-grouse habitat would need to comply with all the restrictions and conservations actions under the ESA and consult with the FWS on every future project, extending the timeline. This would apply to businesses, the BLM, the states, and private landowners—even those who have received funding or other resources from a federal agency for a project on their land. Compared to this case-by-case consultation process under a listing, the BLM land-use plans provide a firm set of guidelines to give every industry and community stakeholder the certainty they need to plan for the future.

Buffers and Caps

The BLM plans prescribe buffers and caps for the disturbance to breeding ground areas from human activity and development. One opponent of the plans has promoted the idea that an ESA listing doesn’t come with these buffers and disturbance caps. It’s true that the Act itself doesn’t mandate these restrictions, but immediately following any listing, there would be a designation of critical habitat and development of a recovery plan, which could include even more stringent buffer zones. It’s very doubtful that a post-listing plan would be weaker than the current federal plans.

‘Take’ Note

Obviously, sportsmen would lose the opportunity to hunt sage grouse if they were listed, but the concept of ‘take’ under the ESA also extends to the habitat of the listed species. Under Section 3 of the ESA, ‘take’ means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Aside from hunting them, any activity that would disturb or harass the bird, or alter its habitat in a negative way, would technically be a violation of the ESA and could be subject to penalty under the law. If you don’t believe me, just ask the timber industry what ‘take’ meant to them after the northern spotted owl was listed.

Image courtesy of Jeannie Stafford/USFWS.

At Home and Afield

With a listing, mandatory enforcement of ESA restrictions extends to all critical habitat, which would include, at the least, everything currently considered priority habitat areas on public land, plus at-risk habitat on private lands. Regardless of ownership, any take of sage grouse or habitat on these lands could be subject to prosecution under the law, with the exception of those already enrolled in conservation agreements with the FWS. This includes applicable programs under the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative or Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), of which there are several million acres already enrolled.

The Best Path Forward

So, does a listing of the greater sage grouse really sound better than implementing the current federal and state plans? I’d say that this rhetoric is really just a last-ditch effort to thwart change and maintain business as usual. Perhaps some of the largest companies and landowners in the region could afford to comply with the ESA, but would this have been the best path forward for the West as a whole? Of course not.

Clearly, and without question, a listing scenario would be far more time-consuming, expensive, and disastrous for the Western economy than implementing the proactive conservation plans that have already been finalized. And that’s not to say that we’re settling for the devil we know. The decision not to list sage grouse required that strong federal plans, complemented by solid state plans and extraordinary voluntary efforts exhibited by private landowners, be developed with assurances that they’d be implemented. And all of this needs to stand up in court.

The next step should be to make sure everyone does what they said they would do to implement their plans. And Congress needs to ensure full funding for implementation of conservation measures in the federal plans and continue supporting the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative to benefit these birds. Let’s not get distracted by attempts to dismantle the collaborative efforts that got us where we are today.

Take action now.

Kristyn Brady

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posted in: Farm Bill

September 22, 2015

Endangered Species Act Protection is Not Warranted for Sage Grouse

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced today that the range-wide population of greater sage grouse does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act. This decision comes after years of coordination and planning among federal, state, and local stakeholders to better protect sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species, while allowing for energy development, livestock grazing, and recreation to continue.

The BLM finalized a critical step toward achieving the not-warranted finding by signing two Records of Decision that will amend nearly 100 resource management plans (RMPs) across the West to benefit the bird.

Sportsmen’s groups are encouraged by the decision and appreciative of the 11 states, federal agencies, private landowners, and other vested stakeholders that have come together in a daunting, often controversial effort. “The work to benefit sage grouse over the last five years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The collaboration we’ve seen is unprecedented and extraordinary. It sets forth a model for what I believe to be the future of conservation in America.”

For many of the groups involved in this effort, today’s announcement comes with a cautious sense of relief. “For years, sportsmen, ranchers, developers, and biologists have anxiously awaited the day when the sage grouse listing decision would be made,” says Steve Riley, president and CEO of the North American Grouse Partnership. “Now, it is imperative that these collective conservation efforts are implemented and monitored for effectiveness in the long-term if we are to avoid winding up with sage grouse again at risk further down the road.”

Sportsmen have argued that an “all-of-the-above approach”—with distinct plans developed and implemented by the federal, state, and private sectors—was the only way to get to a not-warranted decision and sustain conservation into the future. Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever notes that private landowner efforts, led in part by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, were a critical piece of the success leading to today’s decision. “Partnership-driven, voluntary conservation efforts have contributed to a positive decision for greater sage grouse and ranching communities in Western states, but our work has only just begun,” says Vincent. “We must continue to build upon this unprecedented level of management for sage grouse populations from federal and state agencies and the ranchers who are implementing landscape-level habitat improvements on private lands.”

Image courtesy of Ed Arnett.

The benefits of today’s decision, and the implementation of robust conservation plans already in progress, will extend to more than just sage grouse. “Thriving sage grouse populations are an indicator that sagebrush ecosystems are healthy, and this is important for more than 350 species of plants and animals, including many that are popular with sportsmen,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “Now, we must remain invested in sustaining the health of this bird—and the landscapes that support it.” Land Tawney, executive director of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, notes that sportsmen and women will benefit as well. “What is good for the grouse is good for the grandeur—the large landscapes being conserved will help sustain backcountry hunting opportunities and big game populations,” he says. “That’s positive for sportsmen and the local communities that depend on proceeds from outdoor recreation-based businesses.”

The work of implementing conservation on the ground is just beginning, and threats still remain. “We’re happy with today’s decision, which proves that collaborative conservation can work,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But it is critical that state and federal agencies enforce the full implementation of their plans and that we continue to oppose Congressional attempts to weaken them.”

Management of sagebrush habitat is a long-term endeavor that costs money and resources, and no one understands that better than a former director of the agency responsible for today’s announcement. “Investment in sagebrush management that balances many uses of the land, including responsible energy development and sustainable ranching, with conservation is essential for our nation’s economy and the Western way of life,” says Williams. “We have the blueprint in place, and now it’s time to build our future. Congressional support and funding can help get us there.”

To see what our other partners are saying about today’s announcement, click here and here.

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