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Clarity Sought in USDA Wetland Determinations- Sen. Heitkamp

A news release on Monday from Senate Ag Committee member Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.) stated that, “[Sen. Heitkamp] today called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to clarify how it is making offsite wetland determinations on farmers’ land in North Dakota and across the country, and improve certainty for farmers and their operations for the upcoming growing season.

“The Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) State Offsite Methods allow it to make wetland determinations without being physically present on farmers’ land. However, its new proposed methods have not provided additional clarity for farmers in how the NRCS conducts this process. Heitkamp pressed USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie to improve how the NRCS communicates with farmers relating to wetland determinations and conservation compliance, which impact what farmers may do with their land.”

Recall that on February 27, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture held a budget hearing and heard testimony from USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller.

During the discussion portion of this hearing, the issue of remote wetlands determination came up.

Specifically, Rep. David Young (R., Iowa) had the following exchange with Chief Weller:

Rep. David Young: “Last year the NRCS proposed updating the way it conducts wetlands determinations in the prairie pothole states, you know, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota. How will the wetland determination proposal affect producers, and when there is a review, will there be an ability for folks to have a second request for review and a second opinion if they disagree with the determination you make?”

Mr. Weller: “Yes. So first starting with what a producer hopefully will experience with us. What we’re proposing is bringing a modern, up-to-date, scientifically driven approach to doing what we’re calling off site determinations. This is a practice we’ve had at NRCS for decades. But what we didn’t have in the prairie pothole region is a consistent approach across all four states. So depending on where your property was, you had a different approach that we needed to update.

“So what this means, though, is actually, at the end of the day, when we implement this—because we were just seeking comments on this approach so far—is better service for a producer. So right now, as you know, there’s been a backlog, particularly in North and South Dakota, but Iowa as well. And in a lot of cases it’s because it’s on site determinations. It takes staff time. When you do an off site determination, you’re using remote sensing technology, you know, photography, LIDAR coverage, other techniques to really do equivalent, if not a more accurate determination approach.

The bottom line is time savings. So the average number of times it takes to do an off site determination is six hours. The average number of hours it takes to do on site is at least 14 hours. Many of them are 40 hours. And that doesn’t count all the driving time. When you break that down in dollars and cents, if you just say, take—you assume 30 bucks an hour for like a field technician to go out and do it, that equates to about 170 bucks to do an off site determination. When you do on site it’s like over $400 a determination, on average.

But when you multiply that over like South Dakota, where they have 2,500 determinations in the backlog, that’s the difference between $300,000 over a million dollars. And when it comes down to that kind of expenditure, when you add that up across four states, you’re talking real money. And that’s money I’d rather employ back in the field to provide, you know, technical assistance to producers as opposed to investing it in a way that we can be more efficient.

“So to your question about what happens for the producer, the first approach would be the off site determinations, which will be much more efficient. They’ll get determinations made quicker. It’s a preliminary determination. If they don’t like the determination, they can then appeal it and they can then request an on site determination.

“If they don’t like the on site determination from the field staff, they can then appeal that to the state office. If they don’t like the state office determination, they can then appeal that to the national appeals division. So there’s absolutely all these protections for a producer. We’re not changing any of that, how that works. We’re actually just trying to streamline it and get the determinations made faster and cheaper.”

Today’s news update from Sen. Heitkamp added that, “Last August, Heitkamp brought Bonnie to North Dakota, calling on him to improve consistency and predictability on wetland determinations and to have him hear firsthand how uncertainty surrounding wetland regulations affects farmers in the state.”

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