USDA Reallocates Conservation Funding

On September 12, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman announced that USDA would re-allocate nearly $115 million to the states in unused funds that had been held back in national reserves for the EQIP “performance holdback, and for technical assistance to service CRP and WRP as well as some new funds to ensure that the WRP acreage goals can be met. Because some of the technical assistance workload associated with the recent CRP signup will occur in the next fiscal year, the funds were shifted back for use in the WRP, EQIP, Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, CRP and WHIP.

Most of these funds were not previously allocated to states, so this allocation will truly boost the amount of conservation funding available for fiscal year 2003. The allocation also provided some relief to the four donor programs, which were impacted by CRP/WRP technical assistance needs. The technical assistance for these two programs will continue to be an issue to address for the 2004 fiscal year. NACD has continued to work towards each program paying for its own technical assistance.

Approps on the Move -- Slowly

The House and Senate are moving -- albeit slowly -- on the 13 fiscal year 2004 appropriations bills. Conference committees approved three bills last week that will be voted on in both chambers this week then sent to the President. The current fiscal year will expire next week on September 30 forcing the Congress to pass a continuing resolution to keep segments of the federal government operational whose FY’04 funding bills are not signed into law.

Given the enormity of what remains to be accomplished with the spending bills, it will be likely that many of the bills get wrapped up into a catchall omnibus bill. The Agriculture Appropriations bill is slated to be one of those that will be included in an omnibus package.

Interior Appropriations: The House passed its version of the bill in July. The Senate will take up the bill this week on the floor. A decision has not yet been made on whether or not to include the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative as part of the Interior approps bill. More below on Healthy Forests.

VA/HUD (EPA) -- The Senate Appropriations Committee slashed funding for the Section 319 NPS program by saying it overlaps with USDA programs and there are inadequate plans for use of the funding. NACD disagrees with the committee’s assertion and has since sent an action alert out to the Principal Legislative Contact network asking state and local conservation district leaders to help reverse the Senate’s action. The bill has not been taken up by the full Senate yet. The House passed its version of the bill in July with no deduction in Section 319 funding.

Wildfire Reimbursement Funding -- A total of $319 million in emergency firefighting money was included in the Legislative Branch appropriations conference bill. Some extra funds over the original $289 million requested were provided the first amount “does not do the trick,” according to Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT).

As mentioned above, last week NACD sent an action alert out to the PLC network asking that state and local conservation leaders contact their members of Congress on several items including Section 319 funding, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, the National Drought Preparedness Act and emergency wildfire funding. NACD urges state leaders to work with their PLCs in communicating conservation districts position to lawmakers. NASCA sent a similar action request to its members. For more information on any of the items above, please contact the NACD Washington office at 202-547-6223 or Laura-McNichol@nacdnet.org.

Quick CSP Update

To date, the highly anticipated draft rule for the new Conservation Security Program remains at the White House Office of Management and Budget for approval. When the rule for the program is finally published, there will likely be a 45-day public comment period. At that time, it will be critical for state conservation leaders to review the rule and work with NACD to develop comments. Stay tuned…

Coalition Meets on TSP

Another in a series of coalition briefings on Technical Service Providers (TSP) was held on September 17. NRCS provided an update on numbers of certified providers to date, their distribution in the country and by areas of certification. Over 1,100 TSPs are now certified with nearly another 1,000 applications pending. Fifty plus businesses, agencies and non-governmental organizations are now also certified. The NRCS Midwest region has the largest number of certifications so far with over 500.

The briefing also covered the fact that the full $20 million designated for TSP use from FY’03 funds would be used and that the actual amount at the end of the fiscal year will be somewhat above that level.

NRCS Chief Bruce Knight led off the briefing with a reminder of the agency’s commitment to making this a successful effort to assist producers with their conservation efforts. He requested continued input from the coalition on a number of issues. He also encouraged consideration of training initiatives on a fee basis and suggested that some TSPs might want to be involved in that portion of the business.

The group was then briefed on the not to exceed rates that were recently published. They covered the process used to develop the current rates and emphasized that they represent typical situations. There are a number of reasons to make exceptions to these rates, such as complexity of an individual practice or system, local environmental situations, inadequate data or scale/size of projects.

A number of coalition members raised questions and suggestions about the rates, which should provide help to the implementation process. Many conservation districts are providing TSP services usually via a contribution agreement, where they are providing a match to the NRCS funds. Although there are certainly many questions and challenges about the implementation of the TSP initiative, it is underway and gradually growing to become another tool to help advance conservation in many parts of the country. For information on the initiative refer to the NRCS TechReg website at http://techreg.usda.gov/.

Healthy Forests Update

A large coalition of groups continues to work with several senators to reach a compromise solution to move the Healthy Forest Restoration Act forward. There is even discussion that the bill might be attached to the FY’04 Interior appropriations bill. At this time, some issues remain over the judicial review and old growth stands. Healthy Forests authorization was part of last week’s action alert to PLCs. Stay tuned…

USDA Announces Draft Animal Ag Framework

Last week, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman announced the release of a draft National Animal Agriculture Conservation Framework to help address conservation challenges and opportunities on animal agriculture over the next 10 to 15 years. The framework is modeled after the state frameworks that were developed earlier this year by NRCS state conservationists along with the state technical committees. The four objectives of the draft plan are:

  • Help producers meet environmental regulatory requirements.
  • Assist in implementing flexible, results-based multimedia solutions.
  • Promote innovation and market-based opportunities.
  • Share knowledge and increase accountability.
For more information on the draft framework, please visit http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/2003/09/0307.htm.

More Votes to Cut Off Outsourcing Initiative

On September 9, the House voted to prohibit the Bush administration’s new outsourcing rules that were adopted in May. The provision was included in the FY’04 Transportation and Treasury Appropriations bill by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). The administration followed the vote by releasing a Statement of Administration Policy threatening to veto the bill if it reached the President’s desk with the prohibition.

The Van Hollen amendment, like the provision in the House version of FY’04 Interior appropriations bill, is designed to force a fair evaluation of federal jobs for outsourcing. The Interior bill provision simply states: “None of the funds in this Act can be used to initiate any new competitive sourcing studies.” The rider applies to the Department of Interior and the Forest Service. An additional rider is expected on the Senate floor as they debate the Interior bill.

NACD Annual Meeting Update

Work is progressing on the NACD 2004 annual meeting. The program committee, chaired by NACD 1st Vice President Bill Wilson, developed a new approach using a series of “tracks” to cover top priority policy and operations topics for the meeting participants. Following the traditional general sessions on Monday and Tuesday mornings, the track series will run on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, as well as Wednesday morning. Specific subjects will be placed on the NACD website for your use in planning your time at the annual meeting. Several of the track sessions will be repeated so that attendees will be able to take in a mixture of subjects. The committee also plans a “Questions and Answers” session with the association’s leaders and a series on conservation successes from around the country. Registration information can be found at: http://www.nacdnet.org/2004/aloha.htm.

Charities Bill Includes Conservation Incentives

The Charitable Giving Act passed the House last week. Among other things, the bill would provide tax breaks to landowners who participate in wildlife conservation programs, mainly those offered through the Department of Interior. The measure, H.R. 7, would allow landowners to exclude any incentives payments from Interior programs from their gross income. These incentives are similar to those available to landowners through the USDA programs. Similar provisions were included in a bill passed by the Senate in April.

Brief Briefs

  • The NACD Annual Meeting in Hawaii is just around the corner. At the 2004 meeting, NACD will once again host its annual Live Auction to benefit the association’s Legislative Fund. NACD asks that state associations and others begin to think about what you might donate to benefit this important fund. At the 2003 meeting, proceeds reached just over $30,000. A letter and flyer will be sent to state associations soon with more information.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a confirmation hearing this week for Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, President Bush’s nominee to be EPA Administrator. The hearing was originally scheduled for September 18 but was postponed due to Hurricane Isabel.
  • The NACD officers were in Washington, DC last week to meet with administration officials on a number of issues including presidential management agenda items like office closures, outsourcing and e-government. The officers were also able to attend part of an NACD staff meeting to provide guidance on annual meeting planning, NACD restructuring, and a “Fall Campaign” to ensure 2004 funding for conservation programs. Although the week was cut short by Hurricane Isabel, they were able to accomplish most of their planned sessions.
For more information on any of the above topics, visit the National Association of Conservation Districts at www.nacdnet.org.