NSAC's Blog

New Report Reveals Gaps in Enforcement of Conservation Compliance

June 5, 2018

Conservation buffer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI). Photo credit: USDA.

Conservation buffer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative (CBWI). Photo credit: USDA.

Each year, billions of taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize farm bill programs (e.g., commodity programs and crop insurance). In exchange, farmers and ranchers who benefit from those programs are required to take certain basic steps to conserve our shared natural resources, specifically soil and wetlands. These expectations are codified in law through what is known as “conservation compliance,” which requires farmers, in exchange for taxpayer subsidies, to protect wetlands on their land and to implement a conservation plan to limit soil erosion.

A recent analysis of reports and enforcement data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), however, revealed serious deficiencies in conservation compliance implementation, a failure to enforce conservation compliance in many states, and problems with how USDA verifies that farmers are taking the necessary steps to comply.

Conservation compliance is critical to ensuring a very basic level of conservation is undertaken to protect our shared natural resources. Given the troubling revelations of this recent report, NSAC recommends that immediate steps be taken to improve and better enforce conservation compliance. NSAC’s report, the fifth in its series of “Special Reports,” focuses on Highly Erodible Land compliance (HELC) and offers specific recommendations through which to address the current failings in oversight and enforcement.


Congress first authorized conservation compliance in the 1985 Farm Bill (the “Food Security Act of 1985”), based on the principle that taxpayers should receive basic soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat benefits in return for funding federal agricultural subsidies. Specifically, the Food Security Act of 1985 provided that all producers receiving commodity, crop insurance and other subsidies, farm loans, and conservation program payments were required to comply with minimum soil and wetland conservation requirements in order to retain their eligibility for subsidies.

Conservation compliance is comprised of two prongs: reducing erosion from highly erodible soils and preventing wetland conversion on agricultural landscapes for the purpose of producing agricultural commodities. This provision protects natural resources by prohibiting producers from draining or filling a wetland and requires the implementation of a soil conservation plan when farming highly erodible land. NSAC’s report, “Special Report: Enforcement Of Conservation Compliance For Highly Erodible Lands”, focuses on the enforcement of Highly Erodible Land (HEL) conservation compliance.

Summary Findings

Each year, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) conducts compliance spot checks on an average of one percent of tracts nationwide that are subject to conservation compliance. The percentage of tracts sampled, however, is not uniform from state to state. According to one NRCS employee, “the one percent is a rough target nationally, so some states may be over or under that percentage.”

Even though all states are conducting some level of spot checks, many states consistently fail to identify any violations. Between 2003 and 2015, 19 states reported zero HEL compliance violations; even states with significant amounts of HEL, such as Maryland and Michigan, reported zero violations.

States Reporting Zero HELC Violations
Administering State Total Reported HELC Violations (2003-2015)
Alaska 0
Arizona 0
California 0
Connecticut 0
Delaware 0
Florida 0
Louisiana 0
Maine 0
Maryland 0
Massachusetts 0
Michigan 0
Nevada 0
New Hampshire 0
New Jersey 0
New Mexico 0
Rhode Island 0
South Carolina 0
Utah 0
West Virginia 0

An additional 18 states reported 10 or fewer violations over the same 13-year period. This list includes many of the states with the greatest number of HEL acres (e.g., Washington, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado).

States Reporting 1-10 HELC Violations
Administering State Total HELC Violations (2003-2015)
Arkansas 1
Georgia 1
Oregon 1
Vermont 1
Virginia 1
Washington 1
Hawaii 2
Wyoming 2
Idaho 3
Colorado 4
Kentucky 6
Oklahoma 6
South Dakota 7
Tennessee 7
Alabama 8
Mississippi 8
New York 8
Texas 10

Of the 31 states that reported at least one HEL compliance violation over this time period, nine have not done so since 2008. The likelihood that no or very few violations occurred in over half of all states between 2003 and 2015 is slim, especially where there is a significant amount of HEL.

The bulk of HELC violations each year are being reported by a relatively small subset of states. This indicates that different states are playing by different rules. At 760, Iowa reported more violations than all other states combined, which suggests that their oversight is significantly more robust than in many other states. Nebraska and Illinois followed in second and third, respectively, for violations reported between 2003 and 2015.

Top Five States: HEL Compliance Violations
State Violations
Iowa 760
Nebraska 209
Illinois 142
Wisconsin 58
Missouri 37

The NSAC Special Report offers a set of policy solutions to address this problem of uneven monitoring and enforcement, including: establishing a more effective quality control process, requiring a minimum ratio of compliance spot checks per state, and establishing a dedicated funding stream to support enforcement. Click here to view the full report or visit our publications page.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Grants and Programs

One response to “New Report Reveals Gaps in Enforcement of Conservation Compliance”

  1. Paul Overby says:

    Has NASC conducted a similar review of wetland violations?! Some of my neighbors have been pretty active with ditching equipment these past few years. There was a provision buried in the last farm bill that required compliance by 2019 for wetland violations. Conveniently, that will be easy enough to remove in this new farm bill!