Benchmark condition inventory – good because it provides NRCS and land  owner with a way to evaluate

Benchmark condition inventory – good because it provides NRCS and land owner with a way to evaluate

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September 7, 2005 Financial Assistance Programs Division Natural Resources Conservation Service P.O. Box 2890 Washington, DC 20013-2890 COMMENT ON THE AMENDED INTERIM FINAL RULE FOR THE CONSERVATION SECURITY PROGRAM Please find below American Farmland Trust’s comments on the Amended Interim Final Rule for the Conservation Security Program (CSP) published in the Federal Register on March 25, 2005 by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). American Farmland Trust (AFT) is a national conservation organization working across the country to save the land that sustains us. Established in 1980, we are the only national nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the best farm and ranch land, planning for growth with agriculture in mind and keeping the land productive and healthy. The CSP is the nation’s first comprehensive stewardship incentive program for farmers and ranchers, and we believe that this type of program should become a central component of future U.S. farm policy. In order for it to do so, however, the NRCS must implement the program in a manner that is national in scope, financially attractive to producers and predictable. In our comments on the original interim final rule, we recommended that the NRCS reject the proposed watershed approach, provide the maximum payment levels authorized by the statute and make the program more accessible to farmers and ranchers. Unfortunately, the agency did not include ...

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September 7, 2005

Financial Assistance Programs Division
Natural Resources Conservation Service
P.O. Box 2890
Washington, DC 20013-2890

COMMENT ON THE AMENDED INTERIM FINAL RULE FOR THE
CONSERVATION SECURITY PROGRAM

Please find below American Farmland Trust’s comments on the Amended Interim Final
Rule for the Conservation Security Program (CSP) published in the Federal Register on
March 25, 2005 by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

American Farmland Trust (AFT) is a national conservation organization working across
the country to save the land that sustains us. Established in 1980, we are the only national
nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the best farm and ranch land, planning for
growth with agriculture in mind and keeping the land productive and healthy.

The CSP is the nation’s first comprehensive stewardship incentive program for farmers
and ranchers, and we believe that this type of program should become a central
component of future U.S. farm policy. In order for it to do so, however, the NRCS must
implement the program in a manner that is national in scope, financially attractive to
producers and predictable. In our comments on the original interim final rule, we
recommended that the NRCS reject the proposed watershed approach, provide the
maximum payment levels authorized by the statute and make the program more
accessible to farmers and ranchers. Unfortunately, the agency did not include these
fundamental changes in the amended interim final rule.

AFT once again urges the NRCS to eliminate restrictions that limit CSP enrollment to
select watersheds and encourages the agency to utilize an allocation system that ensures
that CSP is open to all farmers and ranchers in all states. AFT also encourages the agency
to provide producers with meaningful program payments by removing the stewardship
payment reduction factor and eliminating the variable payment rates and caps on
enhancement payments. We further urge the NRCS to recognize the diverse nature of
agricultural operations by ensuring that eligibility criteria are attainable for all farmers
and ranchers and by making a broad array of conservation practices and systems eligible
for CSP payments. We believe that these changes will not only result in a CSP that is
available to all farmers and ranchers regardless of size, product, or geography, but will
also recognize farmers and ranchers who protect and improve the environment.
NATIONAL OFFICE
1200 18th Street, NW • Suite 800 • Washington, D.C. 20036
Tel: (202) 331-7300 • Fax: (202) 659-8339
www.farmland.org

We hope you will consider these thoughts and the detailed recommendations below as
you develop the final rule for the CSP.

COMMENTS ON THE AMENDED INTERIM FINAL RULE

§ 1469.4(b) Significant resource concerns

Recommendation: AFT opposes the provision that allows the Chief to determine
additional nationally significant resource concerns for each sign-up. We recommend that
additional significant resource concerns be determined and announced at the state level
one-year before each sign-up notice. Finally, we recommend that the agency allow
participants to address any additional significant resource concern during the first year of
their CSP contract.

Comment: The interim final rule allows the Chief or his designee to determine additional
nationally significant resource concerns during each sign-up. Allowing the Chief to
determine significant resource concerns at the national level fails to acknowledge the
unique resource concerns facing each state. AFT believes that State Conservationists,
with input from State Technical Committees, are better positioned to make informed
decisions regarding resource concerns in their states. Allowing each state to determine
additional significant resource concerns recognizes the knowledge of local resource
issues possessed by NRCS state level staff. Determining resource concerns at the national
level will ultimately limit the environmental benefits the CSP provides. We recommend
that the agency revise the first sentence of the provision to read, “For each sign-up, the
Chief may direct State Conservationists to determine an additional significant resource
concern for all land uses.”

Advance notice of additional resource concern requirements is critical in light of the
agency’s estimation that it may take eight years to rotate through all of the nation’s
watersheds. Last minute notice of additional resource concern requirements in the sign-up
notice may prevent otherwise qualified producers from enrolling in the CSP until the
NRCS selects their watershed again. The agency should announce any additional
significant resource concerns at least one year before the actual sign-up period. This will
provide producers with sufficient time to implement new practices to address the concern
prior to the actual sign-up period.

The agency must also recognize that it is not possible to effectively address some
resource concerns over a short period. In addition to providing farmers and ranchers with
a one-year advance notice of additional resource concerns, the agency should allow
participants to address additional significant resource concerns during the first year of
their CSP contract.

Finally, the loss of productive farm and ranch land is a vital resource concern that is not
included in the NRCS Field Office Technical Guides. AFT urges NRCS to include farm
and ranch land protection as a resource concern that participants may address to meet
American Farmland Trust 2
September 7, 2005
eligibility criteria or CSP contract requirements. The CSP would not provide payments
for farm and ranch land protection. Instead, it would recognize farm and ranch land
protection as a resource concern that could be or may have already been addressed
through other means, such as land permanently protected through a state or local
Purchase of Conservation Easement (PACE) program. Including it on the list of resource
concerns would recognize the long-term commitment to agriculture and conservation that
these landowners have made.


§ 1469.5(e)(1) Minimum tier eligibility requirements

Recommendation: AFT believes the minimum tier eligibility criteria proposed by the
NRCS are not closely linked to the environmental outcomes they seek to achieve and
ultimately limit participation in the CSP. We recommend that the agency establish
minimum eligibility criteria that reflect actual conservation outcomes and are attainable
for a majority of farmers and ranchers.

Comment: The minimum level of treatment requirement proposed by the NRCS further
restricts producer eligibility for the CSP and limits the number of environmental and
conservation benefits that the program can ultimately provide. It is critical that the NRCS
not impose minimum level of treatment requirements that are so rigorous that they
prevent a vast majority of deserving producers from enrolling in the program. While AFT
agrees that the NRCS should require producers to demonstrate a prior commitment to
conservation as a condition of eligibility, we believe that the minimum level of treatment
criteria it proposes in the amended interim final rule are too rigorous. The Soil Condition
Index threshold for cropland, the water access requirements for pasture and rangeland
and the buffer requirement for Tier III eligibility are all examples of minimum eligibility
requirements that may not reflect actual conservation efforts. We encourage the agency to
re-examine the proposed minimum tier eligibility provisions to ensure that they are
attainable for a majority of farmers and ranchers and are reflective of actual conservation
outcomes.


§ 1469.5(e)(2) Minimum level of treatment on cropland

Recommendation: AFT opposes the Tier I and Tier II minimum level of treatment
requirements for cropland proposed by the NRCS. We recommend that, in addition to the
Soil Conditioning Index, the agency utilize the soil quality index currently being
developed by the ARS in order to determine the soil quality and conservation benefits
provided by cropland.

Comment: The NRCS has determined that applicants must achieve a positive Soil
Conditioning Index (SCI) value in order to enroll in the CSP. This provision prevents
many farmers from enrolling in the program who are utilizing good conservation
practices because it measures trends rather than current soil quality. The agency has
American Farmland Trust 3
September 7, 2005
acknowledged the limitations of the SCI and stated that it should not be used as the sole
1assessment of soil quality or conservation planning.

The agency should recognize that positive SCI values are not possible to achieve on all
types of operations or in all regions of the country even if good conservation practices are
utilized, and in some circumstances may not be necessary to prevent degradation of the
resource. The agency has stated that the SCI is dependent on practices such as crop
2rotation and cover crops as well as practices that limit tillage trips. This makes the SCI a
poor measure of soil quality on vegetable operations that require producers to turn the
soil frequently. Agency literature indicates that the majority of research used to validate
3the SCI was conducted on operations growing corn, wheat, sorghum and soybeans.
While a positive SCI may be an adequate indicator of soil quality for these crops, it is not
appropriate for all types of agriculture.

AFT recommends that the NRCS supplement the SCI with a measurement tool that
provides a more comprehensive evaluation of soil quality. Tools such as the soil quality
index currently under development by the ARS provide a better assessment of soil quality
because they do not depend on the use of certain conservation practices. Supplementing
the SCI with a comprehensive soil quality measure will make the CSP accessible to
specialty crop producers and those using alternative conservation practices while
ensuring that a minimum level of treatment is achieved.


§ 1469.5(e)(3) Minimum level of treatment on pastureland and rangelands

Recommendation: AFT opposes the Tier I and Tier II minimum level of treatment
requirement for pastureland and recommends that the NRCS make pasture management
systems other than rotations eligible for the program.

Comment: The interim final rule is too restrictive with respect to grass-based livestock
systems and rotational grazing. Grass-based systems are currently excluded from the CSP
if they do not use the NRCS mandated rotation schedule or if they do not yet rotate their
livestock. Grass-based systems provide environmental benefits even on operations that
have not met the strict rotation requirements. In addition, the requirement that operations
address all water access issues for livestock prior to enrollment excludes a large number
of participants from the program. The agency should allow farmers and ranchers who
have not fully met the criteria to enroll in the CSP and allow them to adapt their rotation
schedules and modify their water access and facilities during the first year of their CSP
contract.


1 Natural Resources Conservation Service, Interpreting the Soil Conditioning Index: A tool for measuring
soil organic matter trends. 3 (April 2003). Available: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/files/16.pdf
2 Barbara Stewart. (March 2005). Soil conditioning index used with Conservation Security Program. What is it?
How can you improve your score? Presented at the 2005 Agriculture and the Environment Conference. Available:
http://www.aep.iastate.edu/water/2005/workshops/B6-stewart-a.html
3 Natural Resources Conservation Service, Interpreting the Soil Conditioning Index: A tool for measuring
soil organic matter trends. 4 (April 2003). Available: http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/files/16.pdf
American Farmland Trust 4
September 7, 2005
§ 1469.5(e)(4) The minimum level of treatment for Tier III

Recommendation: AFT opposes the Tier III minimum level of treatment requirement as
well as the riparian corridor requirement. AFT recommends that the NRCS require
participants to achieve the minimum level of treatment for existing resource concerns
other than soil and water quality during the life of the contract. Furthermore, we urge the
agency to eliminate the riparian buffer requirement for Tier III contract.

Comment: The NRCS proposes to require applicants for Tier III contracts to address all
applicable resource concerns prior to enrollment. Tier III contracts should reward farmers
and ranchers interested in providing environmental and conservation benefits beyond
those required by Tier II. This provision places an excessive burden on producers and
will ultimately reduce the number of participants at the Tier III level. The agency should
require Tier III participants to address soil and water quality concerns on the entire
operation prior to enrolling in the program, and allow them to address all other resource
concerns during the life of their CSP contract.

The NRCS has increased the water quality standards for Tier III eligibility by requiring
farmers and ranchers to buffer all riparian corridors as a condition for enrollment. This
provision changes riparian buffers from a practice eligible for enhancement payments to
an eligibility requirement. While AFT agrees that buffers are an important conservation
practice, we believe that they are not essential in all places to protect and improve water
quality. Farms and ranches that meet all water quality requirements in the FOTG should
be eligible for Tier III contracts even if they do not meet the riparian buffer requirement.
Buffers should remain as an enhancement activity. If the agency determines that riparian
buffers are a priority, then it should require Tier III participants to install buffers during
the life of their contract.


§ 1469.6(a) Selection and Funding of Priority Watersheds

Recommendation: AFT opposes the use of a priority watershed approach and
recommends that the NRCS replace it with an allocation system similar to that used for
other NRCS conservation programs. Allocating funds to each state NRCS office allows
the agency to implement the program on a nationwide scale, while maintaining the
agency’s ability to expand or ratchet back the program based on funding availability.

Comment: While the NRCS asserts that the priority watershed approach provides the
CSP with the best chance for success, AFT believes that the approach has severely
dampened producer interest in the program because of its limited availability. Under the
current proposal, the NRCS estimates that it will take at least eight years to rotate through
the nation’s 2,119 watersheds. This excludes many interested producers during every
sign-up by requiring them to wait for their watershed’s “turn” and limits the
environmental and conservation benefits that their participation in the program could
provide. AFT encourages the NRCS to adopt a state allocation system for the CSP that
American Farmland Trust 5
September 7, 2005
will enable state NRCS offices to implement the program in a manner that addresses local
resource concerns.

Under this approach, the NRCS could base state allocations on the same data that it
proposes to use for the selection of the priority watersheds. State NRCS offices would
continue to work with NRCS Headquarters to identify CSP goals and priorities that
address the state’s resource concerns. However, rather than implementing the program in
specific watersheds, the program would be open to all producers in the state on a
competitive basis. This approach would increase access to the CSP and generate interest
among producers. In addition, it would enable State Conservationists to focus funds in
specific areas to address major resource concerns and continue to provide the NRCS with
the ability to expand or ratchet back the program based on funding availability.

The NRCS believes that the proposed watershed approach will enable it to evaluate the
effectiveness of the CSP by linking conservation practices to actual environmental
benefits. AFT believes that the agency has yet to indicate how it intends to evaluate those
linkages. While AFT supports attempts to determine the environmental benefits of
conservation practices, we believe that implementing the CSP in hundreds of watersheds
across the country will decrease the amount of measurable benefits. In order for the
NRCS to measure these linkages in an effective and efficient manner, it should reserve a
portion of CSP funds to increase enrollments and conduct research on the linkages in
specific watersheds. The agency should also encourage the use of enhancement payments
for research and evaluation on individual farms and ranches participating in the program.


§ 1469.6(b) Enrollment Categories

Recommendation: AFT recommends that the NRCS include farmers and ranchers who
have agreed to permanently protect farm and ranch land in the highest enrollment
category.

Comment: The NRCS has proposed to use a system of enrollment categories in order to
determine which contracts to fund during a sign-up period. One of the major issues facing
agriculture is the loss of productive farm and ranch land. Landowners across the country
have taken the initiative to slow the rate of farm and ranch land loss by placing
permanent agricultural easements on their property. Because farm and ranch lands
enrolled in easement programs will remain in agriculture in perpetuity, they are able to
produce a number of long-term environmental benefits. The NRCS should acknowledge
the long-term nature of the environmental benefits provided by applications that include
permanently protected agricultural land by placing them in the highest CSP enrollment
category.





American Farmland Trust 6
September 7, 2005
§ 1469.6(c) Sign-up Process

Recommendation: AFT opposes the use of priority watersheds as well as the Chief’s
ability to change the eligibility criteria. However, if the NRCS decides to include these
provisions in the final rule, we recommend that it announce the priority watersheds and
any additional program eligibility criteria not listed in § 1469.5 a minimum of twelve
months before the sign-up period. Furthermore, we recommend that the agency designate
dates for the sign-up period that do not conflict with planting season, harvest season or
other major NRCS program deadlines.

Comment: Under the current proposal, farmers and ranchers have one opportunity to
enroll in the CSP every eight to ten years. As a result, it is imperative that the agency
provides them with sufficient time to meet eligibility criteria and application
requirements. During FY 2005, the agency announced the priority watersheds five
months before the sign-up period, but failed to publish the eligibility criteria until three
days before the sign-up period, trivializing the attempts of producers to meet previously
established requirements. Farmers and ranchers need time to collect records, implement
additional conservation practices and complete the self-assessment guide. Providing
farmers and ranchers with sufficient time to meet the requirements and prepare their
application would drastically reduce the amount of NRCS staff time needed to assist
applicants during the sign-up window. The NRCS should create specific procedures for
announcing priority watersheds and adding eligibility criteria and significant resource
concerns in a manner that provides sufficient public notice. Publishing an annual notice at
least twelve months in advance of the actual sign-up period would enable the agency to
provide producers with sufficient time to meet the new criteria.

The 2005 sign-up period occurred in the early spring, a particularly busy time for farmers
and ranchers. In addition, the sign-up period also coincided with program deadlines for
the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) and the Environmental Quality
Incentives Program (EQIP), putting a strain on NRCS field staff. NRCS should establish
an annual sign-up period that does not conflict with planting season, harvest season or
other major NRCS program deadlines. The sign-up period should last at least 120 days, in
order to give farmers and the NRCS adequate time to understand the program and
complete the application process.


§ 1469.7 Benchmark condition inventory and conservation stewardship plan

Recommendation: AFT believes that the extensive list of requirements in this provision
underscore the importance of advance notice of priority watersheds and eligibility criteria
as well as appropriately timed sign-up periods.

Comment: The interim final rule requires applicants to collect and submit an extensive
array of materials as part of their benchmark condition inventory and conservation
stewardship plan. Providing farmers and ranchers with advance notice of priority
watersheds and eligibility criteria will enable them to prepare the supporting documents
American Farmland Trust 7
September 7, 2005
required for a CSP application. This will also spread out the technical assistance burden
placed on NRCS field offices over a longer period rather than compressing it into a two-
month period.


§ 1469.8 Conservation practices and activities

Recommendation: AFT urges the NRCS to make a broad array of structural and land
management practices and activities from the NRCS Field Office Technical Guide as
well as complex management systems eligible for each CSP payment component. The
agency should also provide state NRCS offices with the flexibility to identify and utilize
as many practices and activities as necessary to address resource concerns specific to
each state.

Comment: The NRCS proposes to allow the Chief to determine which structural and land
management practices will be allowed for use in the CSP. While AFT believes that
considerations such as cost effectiveness, potential for conservation benefits and degree
of resource treatment are important, we are concerned that the agency will use the
extensive list of considerations to limit the number of eligible practices and activities. It
is critical that producers have a broad array of practices and activities from which to
choose. However, we believe that eligible practices and activities should provide
conservation benefits first and foremost. Practices intended solely to increase
productivity should not be eligible for cost share. Further, practices that producers must
implement to meet conservation compliance requirements should not be eligible for cost
share. Determinations of eligible practices and activities must occur at the state level, not
the national level. State Conservationists should identify the practices and activities that
are appropriate for their state and that provide real conservation benefits.


§ 1469.21 Contract requirements

Recommendation: AFT recommends that the NRCS allow participants to renew CSP
contracts immediately upon their expiration rather than requiring them to wait until a
subsequent sign-up. In order to maximize the benefits derived from the CSP, the agency
should strive to maintain the continuous enrollment of producers interested in renewing
their CSP contract.

Comment: In the March 25, 2005 Federal Register notice, the NRCS fails to adequately
respond to comments submitted on the first interim final rule concerning the watershed
rotation cycle and the impacts it may have on Tier II and Tier III contracts that have not
yet expired. In response to the comments, the agency cites §1469.5(b) and §1469.20(d) of
the interim final rule that prevent producers from having more than one contract at any
4one time. Based on this response, it appears that current holders of Tier II and Tier III
contracts who reside in a watershed that is eligible for enrollment before their contract

4 70 Fed. Reg. 15205 (March 25, 2005)
American Farmland Trust 8
September 7, 2005
expires, will need to wait an additional six to eight years before re-enrolling in the
program.

The response also contradicts the motto, “Reward the best and motivate the rest” that the
5NRCS adopted for the program. Participants who want to continue in the program
should not have to wait six to eight years before they are permitted to re-enroll.

AFT believes that producers should have the opportunity to re-enroll in the CSP
immediately upon the expiration of their contract. The agency is granted the statutory
authority to renew contracts under 16 USC 3838a(e)(4). The renewal process should not
occur automatically, but instead serve as an opportunity to reevaluate the gains achieved
during the life of the contract and to identify new areas of concern. All participants
interested in renewing a contract should, with NRCS assistance, complete a new
benchmark condition inventory and develop a new conservation stewardship plan that
allows for continued performance improvements. This will ensure that the CSP continues
to yield maximum environmental benefits by maintaining a continuous presence on the
nation’s farm and ranch lands.


§ 1469.23(a) Stewardship component of CSP payments

Recommendation: AFT opposes the application of a reduction factor to stewardship
payments and urges the NRCS to provide the full level of stewardship payments
authorized by the statute.

Comment: The NRCS proposes to use a reduction factor of 0.25 for Tier I contracts, 0.50
for Tier II contracts and 0.75 for Tier III contracts. This proposal is at odds with the
6stewardship payment scheme set forth in the statute. AFT urges the NRCS to remove the
reduction factor and provide participants with the statutory stewardship payment. The
agency notes that it lacks statutory authority to create a specific mechanism for limiting
payments and asserts that if it does not limit payment levels, it would need to change the
7rule each time Congress adjusts CSP funding levels. AFT believes that providing
adequate stewardship payments is critical to retaining producer support for and interest in
the program. Instead of limiting payment levels in response to funding levels, the agency
should use the proposed minimum tier eligibility requirements and enrollment categories
to limit participation.






5 70 Fed. Reg. 15201 (March 25, 2005) states, “The CSP helps support those farmers and ranchers who
reach the pinnacle of good land stewardship, and encourage others to conserve natural resources on their
farms and ranches.”
6 16 U.S.C. § 3838c(b)(1)(C)(i), 16 U.S.C. § 3838c(b)(1)(D)(i) and 16 U.S.C. § 3838c(b)(1)(E)(i)
7 69 Fed. Reg. 34503 (June 21, 2004)
American Farmland Trust 9
September 7, 2005
§ 1469.23(b) Existing practice payment

Recommendation: AFT urges the NRCS to provide existing practice payments at the 75
percent cost-share rate allowed by the statute (90 percent for beginning farmers and
ranchers and limited resource producers). We oppose the agency’s proposal to allow the
Chief to use alternative payment methods to make existing practice payments.

Comment: AFT supports an existing practice payment system that provides producers
with cost-share rates that recognize their conservation efforts and encourage them to
maintain existing conservation practices. The NRCS should provide all producers with a
cost-share rate that is 75 percent of the average 2001 county cost of installing or
maintaining the practice. AFT also encourages the agency to include a 90 percent cost-
share for beginning farmers and ranchers and limited resource producers in the final rule.
This will enable these farmers to implement sound conservation practices and systems on
their operations.

We also oppose the agency’s proposal to allow the Chief to make existing practice
payments using alternative methods. Providing payments for existing practices by
increasing the stewardship payment percentage rather than through cost-share assistance,
fails to reward those producers who have made a significant commitment to land
stewardship. The agency should offer cost-share payments for existing practices at the 75
percent rate allowed by the statute (90 percent for beginning farmers and ranchers and
limited resource producers).


§ 1469.23(c) New practice payments

Recommendation: AFT encourages the agency to provide new practice payments at a
cost-share rate that is 75 percent of the cost of installing and maintaining the practice.
AFT also urges the agency to provide a broad array of conservation practices from which
producers may choose.

Comment: The NRCS proposes a new practice cost-share rate not to exceed 50 percent of
8the cost of installing the practice. AFT believes that low cost-share rates will discourage
producers from undertaking additional conservation efforts thereby reducing the
environmental benefits derived from the program. The statutory cost-share rates of up to
75 percent of the cost of implementing and maintaining a practice will encourage
producers to undertake additional conservation activities.

We also believe that it is important to provide producers with a broad array of practices
for which they can receive new practice payments. This will provide producers with the
flexibility to address resource concerns in the manner best suited to their operation. The
agency should expand the list of eligible new practices to include a wide range of
practices found in the Field Office Technical Guide.


8 § 1469.23(e)(5) in 70 Fed. Reg. 15221 (March 25, 2005)
American Farmland Trust 10
September 7, 2005