Through technical assistance and other U.S. conservation programs, conservationists in every part of the United States help bring environmentally beneficial improvements to farms, ranches and forests.
Background: The majority of U.S. Department of Agriculture spending on environmental stewardship comes through well-known programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and a few others, but the Department also offers a number of smaller programs targeted toward specific needs, as well as providing extensive technical assistance to producers outside the structure of particular programs.
Program Operation: The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is a provider of advice, expertise, information resources and other services to producers, whether or not they are enrolled in any of the agency’s programs. A major trend in recent years has involved greater emphasis on “working lands” programs, where some agricultural production continues under environmental guidelines, as opposed to land retirement programs. This shift recognizes the food security needs of a growing world population that is expected to reach 9 billion later this century, encourages production practices that secure environmental goods. The following list is not exhaustive, and a number of smaller programs also operate within NRCS and other agencies. (Statutory authority is cited at the end of each program description.)
Technical Assistance: NRCS has a network of locally-based professional conservationists who serve every county in the United States. The agency helps farmers and other landowners to improve the natural environment by enhancing the management of private lands; improving water quality and wildlife habitat; and developing sustainable agricultural systems, among other activities. NRCS provides assistance through assessing resources, designing conservation practices, monitoring resource levels and evaluating practices that are already in place. Technical assistance does not include any direct financial aid to producers, but it may help them qualify for other NRCS programs that do share costs. 16 U.S.C. 590a-g, 16 U.S.C. 590q
Regional Conservation Partnership Program: This new program, created by the Agricultural Act of 2014 (2014 farm bill), consolidates several older programs that all utilized partner organizations to work with landowners for environmental benefits. These organizations include farmer cooperatives, forestry groups, state and local governments and others. The program helps producers restore soil, water, wildlife and other natural resources, A significant portion of funding is directed toward critical conservation areas, such as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed or the Longleaf Pine Range. 16 U.S.C. 3871
Emergency Conservation Program: This program helps rehabilitate farms that were damaged by natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes or severe droughts, e.g., by removing debris, and was funded at $123 million in 2012. Funding varies with the occurrence of natural disasters. 16 U.S.C. 2201-2205
Emergency Watershed Protection Program: The EWP reduces hazards to life and property in watersheds damaged by natural disasters, e.g., funding disaster cleanup activities or purchasing easements to reduce the risk of future flooding. 2013 funding was $234 million. 16 U.S.C. 2203, 33 U.S.C. 701b-1
Administration: The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of the Department of Agriculture has responsibility for most of these programs, but in several cases cooperates with other agencies, including the Department’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior. A few USDA conservation programs, such as the Emergency Conservation Program, are directly administered by FSA rather than NRCS.