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USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Leadership Testifies at House Appropriations Hearing

April 6, 2011

On Tuesday, April 5, Harris Sherman, USDA Undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment, and Dave White, Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies.

The hearing focused on the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2012 budget, which proposes deep cuts to many agriculture conservation programs.

Attending the hearing were Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), Chair of the Subcommittee, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), the ranking member, and Reps. Tom Graves (R-GA), Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), and Tom Latham (R-IA).

Both Undersecretary Sherman and Chief White used their opening remarks to outline NRCS’ effort to increase efficiency and effectiveness by streamlining operations and targeting specific species and landscapes.  The Undersecretary also pointed to the President’s FY 2012 request to eliminate support for a number of programs, including the Resource Conservation and Development Program (RC&D) and the Watershed Rehabilitation Program.

As we reported in an earlier blog post, the President’s FY 2012 budget request goes far beyond cutting discretionary spending.  The request calls for deep, permanent cuts of over $1 billion to mandatory spending for farm bill conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).  Beyond those immediate cuts, the President’s proposal, if adopted, would preordain a cut of nearly $5 billion from the next Farm Bill.

Representative DeLauro asked the Undersecretary and Chief to speak on record about these cuts to mandatory programs:

“I am very concerned about the level of Changes to Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS) in the President’s budget request.  The final farm bill mandatory spending levels were painstakingly worked out and helped ensure that we actually got a bill.  According to CBO, the FY 12 Request would reduce farm bill conservation spending by $4.758 billion over the course of the next ten years and $2.5 billion over the five years of the 2012 Farm Bill we will be considering next year.  That is a very big hole in which to put natural resource conservation and environmental protection.  Now, I realize there are times when we have to make modest CHIMPS in order to achieve all the priorities we are called upon to address.  But the size of the cuts proposed in the Request and especially the long-term impact of those proposed cuts are in my opinion too extreme.  It is also, in my opinion, unfair to single out the conservation title alone among the farm titles of the farm bill.  How will these cuts to mandatory conservation programs affect conservation and the environment?”

In response to Rep. DeLauro’s question, Undersecretary Sherman stated, “we share your concern,” and noted that cuts to mandatory conservation programs would result in the loss of the environmental benefits, such as clean water and clean air, conferred by those programs.

Rep. Kingston asked the Chief to outline what kind of impact the RC&D elimination would have on NRCS jobs.  Chief White noted that the program budget is 80 percent personnel, and that NRCS intends to reposition many employees within the USDA and offer others early retirement.  He posited that the 140 healthiest RC&D councils might survive on funds from elsewhere, while the other 235 will likely be dissolved.

Demonstrating bipartisan support for NRCS conservation operations, Rep. Lummis stated, “NRCS is fantastic is Wyoming.  Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) is widely acknowledged as an important service.”  Chief White thanked Rep. Lummis for her support, and emphasized that CTA is a critical component of implementing programs and leveraging matching funds from states and other entities.

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Latham suggested that certain requirements contained in NRCS’ nutrient management practice standard are not appropriate for all producers in all parts of the country.  NRCS conservation practice standards outline the criteria that must be met for a particular conservation practice in order for that practice to be effective.  In response, Chief White noted that he would consider the possibility of regionalizing the standard to address climactic and other differences between states.

In NSAC’s view, there is some justification for ensuring that NRCS conservation standards take regional differences into account, and indeed, practice standards are already often adapted at the state level.  Regionalization of the basic criteria, however, could be a slippery slope and would need to be implemented with care and monitored closely.

Finally, in response to a question from Rep. Graves about whether there are additional programs that could be cut, Chief White pointed out that the NRCS streamlining initiative – an effort to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of NRCS operations – would eliminate 80 percent of clerical work, allowing NRCS to reallocate funds toward technical assistance.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill

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