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NRCS Releases National Guidance on FY13 Conservation Initiatives

November 2, 2012

On Friday, October 26, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provided its state NRCS offices with national guidance on when and how to administer 16 conservation initiatives for fiscal year (FY) 2013.

The national guidance covers a number of initiatives that NSAC tracks closely, including the National Organic Initiative (NOI), National Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative (NSHTI), and the Mississippi River Healthy Watersheds Initiative (MRBI).  It also covers the recently created Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) “certainty” initiative, which exempts producers from regulation under the Endangered Species Act in exchange for the implementation of a conservation plan.

In addition to the four initiatives listed above, the guidance governs the implementation of the:

  • National On-Farm Energy Initiative (NOFEI)
  • Bay Delta Initiative (BDI)
  • Gulf of Mexico Initiative (GoMI)
  • National Air Quality Initiative (NAQI)
  • Illinois River Subbasin and Eucha – Spavinaw Lake Watershed Initiative (IRWI)
  • Northern Plains Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (NP-MBHI)
  • Ogallala Aquifer Initiative (OAI)
  • Long Leaf Pine Initiative (LLPI)
  • New England-New York Forestry Initiative (NE/NYFI)
  • Everglades Initiative (EI)
  • West Maui Coral Reef Initiative (WMCRI)
  • Driftless Area Initiative (DAI)

Clearly absent from the guidance is a list of ranking dates, the dates by which producers must apply in order to be considered for funding in FY 2013.  NRCS has established these ranking dates and plans to distribute them to states in a separate follow-up bulletin.

The overall choices for cut-off dates are the same as we previously reported: October 19, November 16, December 21, January 18, February 15, March 15, April 19, and May 17.  For states that have not yet chosen and announced their cutoff dates, October 19 and November 16 are now off of the table.  States are required to announce dates at least 30 days in advance.  As the sign up progresses, states may choose multiple dates from the list as necessary.

Each of these initiatives is funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) program, and/or Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP); however, NRCS has yet to announce how much money will be made available to producers through each of the initiatives in FY 2013.

Each of the initiatives has minimum number of conservation practices that states must offer unless they request and are granted a waiver for a particular practice.  States (and project partners, where relevant) can also add practices to this list, provided that:

  • The additional practice is needed to support a required practice
  • The additional practice addresses and produces environmental benefits associated with one or more of the initiative’s resource concerns

Organic Initiative

The Organic Initiative has a minimum practice list of 62 conservation practices.  This includes Conservation Activity Plan 138, which assists transitioning-to-organic farmers with the development of a conservation plan.

Applications for the Organic Initiative will be ranked based on national and state-level criteria included in the bulletin, as well as local criteria, which is to be set by the states.  National ranking criteria will account for 25 percent of available ranking points, while state criteria will account for 40 percent of the points.  Local ranking criteria will account for 25 percent of available ranking points.  A cost efficiency score will determine the remaining 10 percent.

Unlike last year, there are no absolute ranking threshold cut-off points for the Organic Initiative in FY 2013.

Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative

The development and point breakdown of ranking questions for the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative mirrors that of the Organic Initiative.  There is one core practice (“Seasonal High Tunnel System for Crops”) and eight supporting practices.  The exemption and addition rules that apply to the Organic Initiative also apply here.  Conservation activity plans may not be offered as part of the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative.

Mississippi River Basin Initiative

For the MRBI, there is a list of core practices and a list of supporting practices relating to avoidance, control, and trapping of nutrient pollution.  States have the option to offer supporting practices at their discretion.  The guidance also allows states to offer several conservation activity plans.

NRCS will soon issue a follow up guidance relating to water quality monitoring through MRBI.  According to the bulletin, “edge-of-field water quality monitoring activities will be available for inclusion in fiscal year 2013 contracts.”  Thus far, edge-of-field monitoring has been offered as an interim practice standard in selected watersheds.

Unlike the Organic Initiative and the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, states develop the state-level ranking criteria and project sponsors develop the local-level ranking criteria.  National NRCS is only responsible for developing the national level ranking questions.  National and state-level ranking criteria will each account for 25 percent of available ranking points, while local criteria will account for 40 percent of the points.  A cost efficiency score will determine the remaining 10 percent.

Working Lands for Wildlife

The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative is a new, $33 million partnership between USDA and the Department of the Interior to conserve threatened and endangered species and provide producers with “regulatory certainty” for up to 30 years.

The national guidance provides a list of core practices that participating states must offer for each of the seven covered species.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires that additional conservation measures be taken for each species when implementing core and supporting conservation practices through the initiative.

The national guidance establishes three initial screening criteria for “high priority” applications, “medium priority” applications, and “low priority” applications.  Additionally, national NRCS developed national and state ranking questions, while the states are required to coordinate with State Technical Committees to develop local ranking questions.  In some cases, the ranking questions and scores are specific to the wildlife species.  Like the Organic Initiative and Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, national and local ranking criteria each count for 25 percent of the ranking score, while state ranking criteria count for 40 percent.

We expect that NRCS will soon release supplemental guidance relating to ranking dates and additional program specifics, and we will update this post with that information when it becomes available.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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