July 20, 2016

Farmers Might Be Breaking a Conservation Compact, But We Wouldn’t Actually Know

Turns out that botched implementation of the USDA’s conservation compliance program goes deeper than we thought, says internal watchdog report

Earlier this spring, the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General—an internal watchdog for the agency that oversees the conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill—quietly issued an interim report that indicated USDA isn’t doing enough to guarantee that, in exchange for federal support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. The report isn’t exactly a page-turner (we broke it down for you here in May), but there could be serious consequences for wildlife habitat and water quality as a result of the USDA dropping the ball.

Now, the OIG has come out with a sequel to their initial report and, like so many summer blockbusters, it’s even worse than the original.

On a very basic level, here’s what you need to know: Compliance creates a conservation compact between taxpayers and agricultural producers. Farmers who use government programs to help manage risk and grow their operations must also affirm that they have not planted crops in wetlands or on highly erodible land.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

The OIG’s interim report in March outlined a serious problem with compliance enforcement between 2012 and 2015. The data the agency was supposed to be using to conduct random compliance checks on farmers was incomplete, and many thousands of farmers who had received payments weren’t considered for review during those four years. In fact, in 2015, not a single farmer from ten major agricultural states was on the list to be checked for compliance. So, the areas in greatest need of monitoring for wetland drainage and soil erosion managed to receive the least attention.

This is an inexcusable lapse in enforcement by a federal agency, and thankfully the USDA has begun to take steps to correct the problem. Sources there have told us that they have followed the recommendations of the OIG, and revised procedures are now in place which guarantee that more than two million records, across all states, will be subject to on-site agency reviews. This is great news, but the story doesn’t end here.

Part two of the OIG’s report now reveals that the USDA’s mismanagement of compliance goes beyond a botched data pull. Here’s what else has been going wrong:

The USDA does not have consistent national standards for compliance checks. Farmers in different states—sometimes in different counties in the same state—have been subject to varying levels of scrutiny, and it’s not even clear which field conditions are considered compliance issues. Further, the national quality control processes set up to check the accuracy of the compliance reviews are also applied with varying degrees of consistency across states.

The compliance checks that did get done were incomplete or improper. OIG found that agency staff sometimes stopped their field reviews after identifying a single violation, potentially missing other violations elsewhere on the property. The agency even failed to properly conduct site visits for its own employees who receive farm payments. The watchdog report notes that the agency needs to clarify the rules specific to USDA employees to ensure fair and consistent treatment of all producers.

Field staff don’t know how to proceed when maps and field conditions are inconsistent. Staff who conduct compliance checks rely heavily on wetland inventory maps, which are over 25 years old, despite knowing that these maps often don’t reflect the current size or location of wetlands. You know, as of 2016. As a result, staff frequently check only the previously-identified wetlands for compliance, ignoring national guidance to survey entire tracts for violations. Moreover, national and state officials have incompatible ideas about whether and when staff should offer updates to the maps to reflect actual conditions in the field.

 

Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Oh, and more data is missing than they thought. In addition to the data issues noted in the interim report, OIG found that the agency missed 325,000 additional records when it compiled its data for 2015 compliance reviews, because of an error tracking county codes. The agency also incorrectly exempted tens of thousands of acres from review, in cases where individual producers farm in multiple areas.

The agency has agreed with OIG’s recommendations, and has committed to corrective action by the end of 2016. But the fact remains that conservation compliance, as currently executed, may not be able to guarantee equal treatment of the farmers who are required to follow the wetland and highly erodible land provisions. It doesn’t seem to guarantee a successful compliance program to the American taxpayer, either.

USDA pays producers about $14 billion per year through farm programs that are subject to compliance, but those payments may go to agricultural producers who have—knowingly or not—violated their end of the bargain. This is a bad deal for farmers, taxpayers, and sportsmen-conservationists who have invested in working lands conservation and deserve plentiful habitat and clean water in return.

2 Responses to “Farmers Might Be Breaking a Conservation Compact, But We Wouldn’t Actually Know”

  1. Joseph Tieger

    USDA programs are intended as conduits for money to farmers there is very little oversight and staff reporting of violations is discouraged. USDA considers itself primarily as an not a regulator and gives only as much attention to conservation programs as they are forced to, which is usually damn little.

  2. Kirk @ River Mud

    Square peg, round hole. We ask USDA employees to do a lot, without a lot of resources. Mapping wetlands in areas currently or previously disturbed by ditching, filling, pipe repair, livestock soil compaction, etc. are among the most difficult wetland mapping tasks there are. They are referred to as “problem areas.” In the private sector, the best soil scientists and wetland delineators in a given region are usually dispatched for such a task, and command high billing. I have a feeling that the USDA inspectors responsible for wetland compliance checks are also responsible for inspecting 10,000 other things while they are onsite, from noxious weeds to feed storage standards. USDA will need to either commit to training them up, or giving them rapid access to remote expert wetland staff (who I imagine the USDA *does* employ, but they can’t be everywhere at one time). There have got to be some decent answers to this conundrum. Thanks for publicizing it, TRCP!

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Kristyn Brady

July 18, 2016

The Fisheries Crisis Just Down the Road from the Largest Sportfishing Trade Show on Earth

While innovation was on display in Orlando, devastation wasn’t far from anyone’s thoughts

Last week’s ICAST show brought more fishing industry brands, buyers, and broadcasters to Orlando than ever before. But in a time of great prosperity for our sports nationwide, there’s a water quality crisis of epic proportions in Florida.

This is why, on day two of our Saltwater Media Summit at ICAST, the TRCP brought together the scientists, researchers, conservation leaders, businesses, and fishermen who are stepping up to figure out what Florida needs to do both short and long term to solve water pollution on the coast lines and restore the Everglades. As our Marine Fisheries Director Chris Macaluso said in welcoming the crowd of over 80 reporters, partners, and interested show attendees, it is an emotional, complex issue, and we all know that we want to do something to protect Florida’s waters wildlife and people. The trick is figuring out how to throw our weight behind the same plan to sway lawmakers and save Florida’s coast and the Everglades.

Costa’s Al Perkinson, vice president of marketing for the influential sunglasses-maker and lifestyle brand, set the stage for the issue by debuting an emotional video about the impact of development on Florida’s fisheries and the Everglades. The centerpiece of Costa’s #fixFlorida campaign, the video is narrated by angler, guide, and TV host Flip Pallot.

Dr. Steven Davis, a wetlands biologist with the Everglades Foundation, led off with a breakdown of exactly what’s causing this crisis. He explained that the areas in and adjacent to the Everglades and Florida Keys generate nearly $2 billion from saltwater angling, but much of that economic activity is being threatened by the mishandling of freshwater from the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Water that once moved south through the Everglades is now being moved via man-made canals and locks to the east, down the St. Lucie River, and to the west through the Caloosahatchee River. This is leading to fish kills, algae blooms, and thousands of lost fishing opportunities on both the west and east coastlines of Florida.

While those brackish and saltwater areas are being inundated with unnatural freshwater flows, Florida Bay, on the southern end of the Everglades, isn’t getting enough freshwater, and unnaturally high salinity levels are killing seagrass beds and other vital habitat while causing additional algae blooms. Poor water management issues are being compounded by the presence of excessive nutrients traced back to aging septic systems and farm runoff from cattle ranches and sugar cane fields.

Without long-term action to address these issues and restore habitat, many of South Florida’s most popular fishing areas face a bleak future. But Davis pointed out that two comprehensive restoration plans do exist: One is incrementally being shepherded by the state and one still requires Congressional approval to get off the ground.

Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“There is a comprehensive plan already under way, with a lot of components closer to completion and others ready to come online soon,” said Kellie Ralston, the Florida fishery policy director for the American Sportfishing Association. “But the plan is looking at 30 years—that’s too long. And the 50-50 split between federal and state agencies tends to slow the process down. We need to fast-track these projects and work collectively as a group. With a conservation plan waiting to be authorized by Congress, that’s something we can focus on.”

And the grassroots support is certainly there—Captains for Clean Water helped introduce the #NowOrNeverglades declaration of support for conservation and funding just a week before ICAST, and Capt. Daniel Andrews says they already have more than 13,000 signers and 200 organizations backing it. “We formed Captains for Clean Water because a lot of people were angry, but didn’t know what they could do,” said Andrews, who also showed a video that the group produced with hook manufacturer Mustad. “I grew up in South Florida, fished Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee, and I’d seen the destruction firsthand. This is degrading the river that made me want to become a fishing guide. That’s why we want to get companies and individuals together and be part of a solution.”

There’s no research left to be done, added Dr. Aaron Adams, director of science and conservation for the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust. “It’s a statement you’ll rarely hear a scientist make, but we don’t need more data,” said Adams. “When it comes to fixing Florida’s water problem, we have actionable knowledge. It’s a political and economic issue at this point.” He explained that time is of the essence, because a lot of the affected habitat is already at a deficit: 50 percent of the area’s mangroves and 9 million acres of wetlands are already gone. “The assembly line that creates healthy habitat is already weakened,” Adams said, adding that restoration can’t begin until the water quality, flows, and storage issues are addressed. “It’s like giving a lung transplant to someone who refuses to quit smoking. If we’re going to preserve Florida as the sportfishing capital of the world, we need to fix the hydrology, reduce contaminated inputs, and then talk about restoring habitat.”

Here’s what needs to happen now:

  • Plans to restore water flows and improve habitat—known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, or CERP—need to be adequately funded and implemented, as promised.
  • The Central Everglades Planning Project needs to be fast-tracked.
  • Conservation dollars approved by Florida voters need to be used to purchase land south of Lake Okeechobee, which has already been identified, to create reservoirs for storing and cleaning water.
  • We need to develop comprehensive strategies to reduce the amount of nutrients in the freshwater entering the estuaries—this includes curbing sewerage, septic leakage, and excessive fertilizer use.
  • Natural freshwater flows, taking into account the time of year and how much water is flowing, need to be restored.
  • Marshes must be restored to filter nutrients from the freshwater that is entering estuaries.

With the momentum of ICAST behind us, the TRCP is joining this coalition of engaged and enthusiastic sportsmen working to improve the Lake Okeechobee Basin. We recently hired our first-ever Florida field representative, Ed Tamson, to roll up his sleeves and work alongside the sportfishing partners, conservation leaders, grassroots advocates, and state and federal agencies trying to restore Florida’s fisheries. We welcome our new colleague Ed, and the challenge of collaborating with many different stakeholders to improve the water quality on the east and west coasts of Florida and restore the Everglades to its former glory.

Ariel Wiegard

June 15, 2016

A Whirlwind Tour of a Complex Landscape in the Prairie Pothole Region

Journalists get up close and personal with working lands and at-risk wetlands in North Dakota

After a week in legendary North Dakota—where every day I was up before dawn and in bed long after the northern summer sun set—I am sunburned, windswept, and my body feels like it was hit by a truck.

No this wasn’t a marathon hunt week—wrong season—but an exercise in living like a reporter on the road. I was there with 18 journalists and a handful of partners* to learn about what’s happening to wildlife habitat in the state. We were all hoping to see firsthand the impacts that rapid advances in ethanol, oil, gas, and agricultural production are having on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR).

The PPR is home to a unique ecosystem, created over tens of thousands of years as glaciers retreated across the northern part of the continent. The glaciers left behind rocky soils and millions of shallow, seasonal wetlands known as potholes. These potholes, and the grasslands surrounding them, are prime waterfowl breeding habitat, lending the PPR its nickname: North America’s Duck Factory. Over half of the continent’s waterfowl are born in those grassland-wetland complexes.

The grassland-wetland complex on the left of the road is protected for conservation, while the land on the right has been converted for crops. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

Among the highlights of the trip was an outing to locate duck nests and candle the eggs, to see how well developed the ducklings inside are, estimate hatch dates, and determine nest success. The site we visited boasted about 460 nests, and it was a unique thrill to flush one hen after another from her nest among old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) plantings. The hens will return to the nests despite our handling of the eggs, and eventually these mother ducks will march their ducklings up to three miles to a wetland to swim, feed, and possibly grow into one of the ducks you’ll hunt this fall.

Fresh down feathers line a nest of duck eggs. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

There’s a lot of other wildlife in the region, especially some of our favorite fish and game—walleyes, wild turkeys, pheasants, sharptail grouse, whitetail deer. We even heard rumors of moose in Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Unfortunately, all of these critters are at risk because grasslands and wetlands are being converted for agriculture and other uses at a rapid pace.

A bird’s-eye view of the Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

The potholes and grasslands of the PPR were once naturally maintained by grazing herds of millions of bison. The bison are mostly gone from this landscape, but cattle have long been their surrogates, keeping the PPR relatively healthy and supporting prairie habitat.

Cattle grazing at sunset on the Black Leg Ranch. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

However, myriad factors are causing cattle to disappear from the land, nearly as abruptly as their native predecessors did. Newly developed seed types and farm equipment have allowed corn and soy crops to move north from the central plains, as those plants can now grow in the shorter northern seasons. Ethanol production and international markets have fostered that migration, as has wetland drainage, which also has the unfortunate side effect of causing flooding and overflowing lakes, literally submerging communities around Devil’s Lake. And the discovery of natural gas in the Bakken Formation has led to hundreds of wetlands being made into well pads. On a dollar-for-dollar basis, it’s hard for cattlemen to compete with these technological advances, and yet they are one of the last remaining forces helping the Duck Factory to persist.

A well pad in the Bakken. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

While the TRCP laments the loss of cattle from the landscape, we do not oppose energy development or technological innovation. We just want it to be done responsibly, in balance with other demands on our public and private lands, and to ensure that sportsmen and wildlife don’t get the short end of the stick.

Most folks in North Dakota, I think, feel the same way. Dozens of times during the trip we heard that sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts are the heroes of conservation, for instance through our Duck Stamp purchases and backing of the Conservation Reserve Program. Many of the industry representatives we spoke with also hunt and fish and they want their children and grandchildren to be able to do the same, so they strive for a conservation-minded approach to development. And just this week, North Dakotans overwhelmingly voted to preserve Depression-era rules, which would limit corporate farm ownership in the state, thereby perpetuating a family farm structure that many believe to be far better for conservation than the alternative.

Summer storm clouds roll in near Jamestown, N.D. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

But the PPR is still suffering a slow death by a thousand cuts. Congress has passed laws through the Farm Bill which should limit grassland and wetland conversion for agriculture, but those laws are unevenly enforced—and even when they are, violators may not be penalized. When it comes to other types of development, there are currently no state or federal laws designed to protect this landscape.

The TRCP wants America’s farmers and ranchers to be successful and profitable, but not at the expense of sportsmen’s access and opportunity. This visit has reinforced our resolve to help develop policies that balance the needs of production agriculture and private landowners with the needs of sportsmen, fish, and wildlife, and that make conservation a financially-viable part of the farm economy.

The sun sets on a wetland near Devil’s Lake. Image courtesy of Ariel Wiegard.

*Many thanks to Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources for helping to organizing the Prairie Pothole Institute.

Steve Kline

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.

Kristyn Brady

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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