Nearly a year after it was due under the 2002 farm bill, USDA has announced the release of its proposed rule for implementing the Conservation Security Program, one of the centerpieces of the “greener” Farm Security and Rural Investment Act.
“The Conservation Security Program will reward the best and motivate the rest by identifying those agricultural producers who historically have been the best stewards of their land,” said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, announcing the proposed rule on Dec. 17. “It will also provide incentives for those who want to increase conservation practices.
First proposed by Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin during the early stages of the debate over the new farm bill, the Conservation Security Program has been plagued by an ongoing battle with the administration over its potential cost and by the complexity of the program.
“The Conservation Security Program is a unique and complicated program,” said Veneman, defending the slow pace of USDA in writing the rule. “The direction given by Congress on this program was very open ended, and we've needed to take the time to get it right.”
Reflecting the administration's concerns about funding, Veneman said funds for CSP will be limited. Based on the omnibus appropriations bill passed last week by the House, and currently pending in the Senate, program funding for fiscal year 2004 is expected to be capped at $40 million.
The Conservation Security Program is designed to complement existing conservation programs by supporting ongoing conservation stewardship of agricultural working lands and enhancing the condition of America's natural resources, said Bruce Knight, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“To ensure that CSP's limited resources are focused first on the most pressing environmental concerns, the rule proposes to prioritize eligibility based on selected priority watersheds,” he said. “The eligible watersheds would be announced and identified through a CSP sign-up notification, which is targeted for the summer of 2004.
“Additionally, through intensive management to increase soil and water quality, such as conservation tillage, nutrient management and grazing management, the program is expected to yield significant benefits for critical wildlife habitat and at-risk species of wildlife.”
Under the proposal, agricultural land in cropland, orchards, vineyards, pasture and range will be eligible for CSP, regardless of size, location or crops produced. Exceptions are forest land or land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program or Grassland Reserve Program.
Applicants must address water quality and soil quality concerns as program eligibility criteria and enrollment will be targeted to those demonstrating the highest levels of stewardship. CSP payment limitations will be based on three “tiers” that represent increasing levels of resource treatment. Payments rise with increased levels of treatment.
Veneman said the payments can include four components:
1) an annual base component for the benchmark conservation treatment, 2) an annual existing practice component for maintaining existing conservation practices, 3) a one-time new practice component for implementing additional practices, and 4) an enhancement component for exceptional conservation effort. The three tiers are capped at $20,000, $35,000 and $45,000 annually and will last for five years for Tier I and five to 10 years for Tier II and Tier III.
House leaders have fought against providing funding for the Conservation Security Program almost from the moment President Bush signed the new farm bill in 2002. Earlier this year, $3.1 billion was taken from the program to offset the funding required for the Agricultural Disaster Assistance Act of 2003.
More recently, Sen. Harkin was able to restore the $3.1 billion in funding for the CSP as part of a compromise to win his vote for the FY2004 omnibus spending bill that has been passed by the House and is waiting for enough votes to cut off debate in the Senate.
The latter is expected to occur when the Senate returns from its holiday vacation on Jan. 20.
Earlier this year, an advance notice of proposed rulemaking was published in the Federal Register, giving the public the opportunity to comment on key issues regarding implementation of CSP. The process generated more than 700 responses and 3,000 specific comments on all aspects of the program.
Veneman said all comments were reviewed and considered as the proposed rule was developed. Comments on the proposed rule will be considered as the final rule is developed with specifics on program implementation.
The proposed rule, as well as additional information on CSP and other conservation programs, will be available on the NRCS Web site at http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/farmbill/2002/products.html.
This proposed rule has a 60-day comment period, and the notice of the proposed rulemaking is scheduled for publication in the Dec. 19 Federal Register. As part of the comment process, listening sessions will be held in a number of locations across the country to gain additional input. Locations, times and additional information on the listening sessions will be published in an upcoming Federal Register notice.
Comments on the CSP proposed rule may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to Conservation Security Program Comments, ATTN: David McKay, NRCS Conservation Operations Division, P.O. Box 2890, Washington, D.C. 20013.