Agriculture Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner has announced nine states are participating in the first conservation planning sign-up, a pilot initiative that emphasizes the importance of conservation planning to help farmers and ranchers be better prepared to apply for conservation programs and to comply with federal, state, tribal and local environmental regulations.

"Conservation planning combines the best elements of cooperative conservation to provide new opportunities to improve environmental performance and maintain productivity," said Conner. "This pilot initiative will demonstrate how a conservation plan is a critical tool to help farmers and ranchers make wise management and land use decisions."

Conner made the announcement prior to hosting the latest in a series of Farm Bill Forums in which members of the public are invited to express their views about farm and rural policy, in preparation for the development of the next farm bill in 2007.

Pilot states include Oklahoma, California, Colorado, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Wyoming as the pilot states.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is establishing a conservation planning sign-up to enable landowners to plan more realistically to implement practices and apply for conservation programs in a more comprehensive approach.

It also allows local NRCS offices to manage their workloads more efficiently and effectively to help landowners reduce erosion, improve soil health, improve water quantity and quality, restore and conserve wetlands, enhance fish and wildlife habitat, improve air quality, improve pasture and range health, reduce upstream flooding, improve woodlands, and address other natural resource issues.

Accept applications

Using a landowner self-assessment process, NRCS offices in the nine pilot states will accept conservation planning applications during the specified sign-up periods. Individuals who want technical assistance to develop a conservation plan may apply at their local NRCS office.

All agricultural land is eligible for conservation planning technical assistance, including cropland, orchards, vineyards, pasture and range, woodland and farmsteads.

Following are the conservation planning sign-up pilot start and end dates by state:

California, Oct. 1 start, Dec. 31 end; Colorado, Sept. 19, Nov. 1; North Dakota, Oct. 3, Nov. 18; Oklahoma, Oct. 17, Nov. 18; Oregon Sept. 1, Sept. 30; Pennsylvania, Sept. 18, Nov. 23; Rhode Island, Sept. 6, Nov. 10; Texas, Sept. 26, Nov. 28; Wyoming Oct. 3, Nov. 18.

NRCS is the federal government's principal agency for providing conservation planning and technical assistance on private land. NRCS helps landowners address today's resource concerns such as soil erosion, water quantity and quality, animal waste disposal, overgrazing and air quality.

This pilot will validate benefits of a conservation planning sign-up, test alternative ways states could conduct a planning sign-up and identify the feasibility of a national sign-up. Additional information on conservation planning and technical assistance is on the Web at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/planning and http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/cta