The proverbial "Robbing Peter to pay Paul,” is how the National Association of Conservation Districts characterizes budget proposals from the Bush administration, which the NACD claims will significantly decrease funds for technical assistance in conservation programs.

The National Association of Conservation Districts is "vigorously opposed" to the Administration's proposals, says Rich Duesterhaus, director of governmental affairs for the group. "Producers aren't being given as much technical assistance as was expected out of the farm bill. Consequently, they will not get as many services as they have come to expect," he says.

In a letter sent to President Bush Jan 17, the National Association of Conservation takes Bush to task for proposing a decrease in technical assistance to the thousands of America’s farmers and ranchers who want to practice good stewardship on their land.

“Less conservation applied to the land will, in turn, jeopardize the cleaner water and air, improved soil quality and enhanced wildlife habitat benefits that all American’s receive from sound land stewardship,” they say.

The Bush proposal forwarded to Congress from the Office of Budget and Management, the group says, would establish a new $322 million discretionary account to fund technical assistance services for federal financial conservation programs, but at the expense of conservation, nutrition, and other USDA programs. That proposed figure has since changed to $432 million, but the effect, says Duesterhaus, is the same.

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman announced Jan. 30 that the president’s budget insures that all of the cost-share and technical assistance conservation work authorized by the 2002 farm bill for fiscal year 2004 will be delivered. USDA will use an additional $432 million, though a new Farm Bill Technical Assistance account, to insure farmers and ranchers can access the technical work necessary to fully utilize the conservation programs’ financial assistance.

Duesterhaus says, “The administration has continued the idea that was proposed earlier in January to go down the back of this technical assistance account, and in fact increase the amount taken out of there. According to the Jan. 30 announcement, funding for technical assistance will come out of other programs and the conservation programs account, with only half of it coming out of the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) as authorized by the 2002 farm bill.”

The National Association of Conservation Districts says it’s okay with setting up a special account for technical assistance, for accountability purposes. However, the group says the proposed account instead appears to be a way to divert funds, and reduce outlays.

“The fact that the administration is giving the conservation program this kind of attention is commendable,” says Duesterhaus. “We are encouraged by this early sign that dollar levels will be increased in 2004 over 2003 levels, however they don’t go to the levels that were authorized by the farm bill.

“The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) was authorized at 250,000 acres each year, and only 178,000 WRP acres were covered in the Administration’s Jan. 30 announcement.”

He said that what matters is that over 164,000 producers will not get services in 2003 because of that Technical Assistance account. “You can’t reduce a program that is serving producers on one side, and put the money on another side, and not accept the fact that you are reducing the services you provide to those producers.”

The National Association of Conservation Districts’ Jan. 17 letter to Bush states, “Currently, USDA delivers conservation technical assistance through the Natural Resource Conservation Service to land managers that participate in federal financial assistance programs, as well as to producers who bear the full costs of installing conservation measures.

“This proposal would significantly reduce federal funding used to assist producers who apply conservation practices at their own expense, and redirect these resources to producers who also receive federal funding to offset the cost of installing conservation measures.”

The proposal, the group’s letter states, would also impair the ability of USDA to collaborate with state and local governments in addressing private lands conservation challenges because federal funding to offset shared costs would be drastically reduced.

NACD president J. Read Smith calls the move “ill-conceived and shortsighted,” noting the irony that the proposal penalizes the producers who are voluntarily spending their own money to conservation measures that provide important public benefits.

“While we clearly support much of the President’s private lands conservation agenda, it appears that he was not fully apprised of the negative impacts that this proposal would have on producers and longstanding intergovernmental agreements that were struck to help land managers apply conservation measures,” says Smith.

One bright note, Duesterhaus says, is that the Senate has passed an appropriations bill that includes language dealing with technical assistance, and it appears they are trying to protect the account the Office of Budget and Management has proposed to raid.

“We fully support the Farm Bill conservation programs, and it said each of the programs would fund their technical assistance,” he says. “The Budget Office was going to fund them through a discretionary fund which would decrease funding provided for by the farm bill.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com