Broad conservation initiatives being undertaken by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) were given extra scrutiny at a hearing on the implementation of the farm bill’s conservation title.

In going after some of the bigger conservation issues, Dave White, NRCS chief, told the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy, and Research that the NRCS is using the “Chesapeake Bay (Watershed Program) as a model.”

The new Chesapeake Bay effort uses resources from many conservation groups to clean up the threatened watershed and was explicitly approved in the latest farm bill. White told the subcommittee a similar effort was under way in the Mississippi River Basin and others are being considered.

This did not sit well with several subcommittee members.

The Chesapeake Bay program “was created in the farm bill for USDA to run, operate and make decisions regarding funding,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Tim Holden, who chaired the hearing. “How are you coordinating with other agencies but maintaining control?”

White: “We’ll cooperate and consult with anyone. But let me assure you USDA will maintain control of that. This year was pretty successful. … We’ll cooperate with everyone and their brother but are not about to cede authority you gave us.”

There has been broad producer interest in the program. “We have 2,037 applications and were able to fund 826 of those,” said White. “We used something like 98.4 percent of all the funds. You don’t want to obligate 100 percent in case there are some adjustments or modifications.”

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is among the most popular conservation programs said Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte, subcommittee ranking member. That’s why, during conference, “we worried greatly those carve-outs and other pet projects would erode the funding for (EQIP) and extend the backlog. Members tried to strike a delicate balance between the carve-outs and the needs of producers throughout the country.

“Now, we hear NRCS has started a Mississippi River Basin initiative above and beyond the statutory limit set by law. In fact, material about this initiative states this funding is ‘above and beyond regularly CCPI (Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative) funding…’”

Where, White was asked, does the NRCS “get the statutory authority to go above” the allowed, congressionally-approved 6 percent and “why would the department use its authority to go above an obvious limitation?”

CCPI, replied White, is a “new tool you provided us in the new farm bill. It allows us to work with partners cooperatively to solve resource problems.

“You’re absolutely right about the Mississippi River. In fact, we looked at the Chesapeake Bay as the kind of model to do that — target resources to solve specific issues.

“On the 6 percent, we talked to the Office of General Council and feel we’re on firm legal ground. The goal isn’t to take away from any state’s ongoing applications — the county-based EQIP applications available nationwide.

“You provided increased funding for EQIP and many of the other programs. Assuming we get that increased funding, that’s where that extra money would come from. I’m not going to rob Virginia to give it to Alabama or Mississippi.”

While Goodlatte has “no doubt” there are those in the Mississippi Delta that “very much appreciate what you’ve chosen to do” he was unwilling to concede the NRCS has “the statutory authority to give preference in that area when there’s no congressional mandate. In effect, you’re taking money away from every other part of the country that’s already annoyed that Chesapeake Bay already has preference. But that was specifically designated, specifically funded, specifically set aside. The rest of the country, I think, is very concerned you’ll do more of these at their expense.”

“Understood,” said White, who also pointed to California’s Air Quality Initiative (for more, see http://www.ca.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/airquality.html) as having similar funding as the Chesapeake Bay program.

Goodlatte claimed he had no quarrel with the programs “as long as you stay within those limits. But when it comes to the rest of the pot of money, the whole country is eyeing it and wants to make sure you’re not exceeding what Congress intended in regards to the set-asides.”

White responded by saying EQIP was created in 1996 with an annual funding level of $200 million (since raised to $1.2 billion). “Sixty-five percent of whatever money was received was prioritized. That caused a huge backlash because the money wasn’t distributed, it was felt, fairly across the country.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com