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USDA Publishes Grasslands Reserve Program Final Rule

November 30, 2010

On Monday, November 29, NRCS published its final rule for the Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP) in the Federal Register.  You can download a pdf version of the final rule here.

USDA published its interim final rule (IFR) for public comment on January 21, 2009, and subsequently published an amendment to address issues associated with wind and solar power production on GRP land.  After reviewing public comments, USDA made a number of substantive changes to the rule.

Consultation with State Technical Committees (STCs)

USDA added language to require NRCS to consult with STCs when “developing program outreach materials at the State and local levels to help ensure landowners, operators, and tenants of eligible land are aware and informed that they may be eligible for the program.”

Additional language was added to require USDA to consult STCs when determining whether certain land will receive priority for enrollment.  Specifically, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land that is within one year of its expiration date will receive priority for enrollment only if “USDA, with advice from the State Technical Committee, […]determines it is of high ecological value and under significant threat of conversion to uses other than grazing.”

GRP Management Plans

In response to concerns over the multiplicity of planning requirements, USDA changed the definition of ‘‘grazing management plan’’ to a ‘‘GRP management plan’’ as the minimum planning requirement for GRP participation.  According to the preamble, “a conservation plan is not required, but can be used as a GRP management plan for certain lands enrolled in the program[…]  In cases where a participant receives ranking points on the basis of resource concerns other than grazing land concerns, all such resource concerns will be addressed in an applicable conservation plan.”

Purchase price and cash match

The GRP IFR required that states and localities that enter into cooperative agreements with USDA to purchase GRP easements provide a cash match for the purchase.  This is prohibitively difficult for some matching entities.  USDA has addressed the issue in its final rule by allowing landowner donations to count as part of the cooperating entity’s share.  Specifically, the final rule changes the definition of purchase price to read, “Purchase price means the amount paid to acquire an easement under a cooperative agreement between NRCS and an eligible entity.  It is the fair market value of the easement.”

Easements vs. Rental contracts (60/40 split)

The GRP final rule removes language that limits the amount of money spent on easements to “no more than” sixty percent and the amount spent on rental contracts to “no more than” forty percent.  The new language states, “USDA will manage the program nationally to ensure that, to the extent practicable, 60 percent of the funds are used for the purchase of easements[…] and 40 percent of the funds are used for rental contracts.”

Renewable energy generation

The preamble to the final rule states, “USDA will consider potential renewable energy on GRP lands when the scope and scale of the facility and associated infrastructure is consistent with protection of grazing uses and related conservation values.  A site-specific analysis of the potential environmental effects will be conducted in consultation with the USFWS.”

Native grasses

USDA makes explicit mention throughout the final rule of its decision to not give preference to native grasses.  For example, the preamble states, “USDA does not want to limit land eligibility to only native grasslands because this would preclude acceptance of other significant habitats such as expiring CRP lands with non- native grasses supporting lesser or greater prairie chickens.”  Elsewhere in the preamble, USDA responded to a request to limit GRP to native grassland systems, stating, “Native grasslands are included in program purposes, as are improved rangeland and pastureland for which grazing is the predominant use.  Priority for native grasslands can be addressed through the ranking process.  Native grasslands can be a priority at either the national, State, or regional level.”

For a relatively small size program, the issue of priorities is particularly important for the GRP.  While the decision in the rule to leave things flexible and up to year by year decisions at the national, State, and local level makes sense from a rulemaking perspective, we hope it does not thereby become tantamount to a decision to not actually target the program to maximize its effectiveness.  At the top of the list in our view should be preservation of native prairie, followed by contracts that aid in implementation of state wildlife plans.  Broader support for grazing management should be aided primarily by the far larger Conservation Stewardship and Environmental Quality Incentive programs.

Visit NRCS’ Grassland Reserve Program page for more information about the program.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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