NRCS considers how to implement IRA conservation funding

Natural Resources Conservation Service offices across the country are preparing to absorb a flood of Funding from the Inflation Reduction Act focused on the conservation programs they run.

Programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program have long been oversubscribed, which the new funding is expected to address. However, the Department of Agriculture is under pressure to increase NRCS staff to cope with the increase in spending.

“We will be working internally and with the department on guidance that they will give us over the next few days on how to use the funds, what practices to aim for and so on.” Carlos Suarez, California State Conservationist for NRCS , said Agri Pulse. “But there’s no question that this is a historic moment for conservation, regardless of what that will be.”

The new funding will be split across several of the agency’s current programs, with a portion going to conservation technical assistance, according to an NRCS request for comment published in the Federal Register in November. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) will receive an additional $8.45 billion in support, while the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) will provide $3.25 billion, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) will provide $4.95 billion. dollars and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) receives $1.4 billion.

The agency says about $1 billion will go to conservation technical assistance, while $300 million will go to greenhouse gas monitoring and $100 million to administrative costs.

Suarez said the focus of the additional funding will be on building climate resilience and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, although the agency also plans to consider equity when it comes to spending the funds. He said many of the NRCS programs available in California have a backlog, even though the bureau had about $125 million in project funding available last year.

The California NRCS office recently signed an agreement with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts and the Regents of the University of California on behalf of the University’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Program. The agreement, dubbed the California Conservation Planning Partnership, will allow institutions to share resources and coordinate their conservation services.

“We’ve always worked with our partners at UCANR, NRCS and CARCD, but this agreement is a commitment to work together in very specific ways so we can provide robust, optimized services and start to close gaps and work together to address the issues.” The challenge is climate change,” said California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross.

California currently has 345 NRCS employees. Suarez has tried to increase that to 380; IRA funding could enable even more.

“We know we need to hire more staff,” Suarez said. “The number of employees will of course depend on how much money we’re going to receive, but while we understand we’re seeing attrition in the state, we also have a lot of people who have retired.”

The USDA national office did not make NRCS chief Terry Crosby or Undersecretary for Agricultural Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie available to comment on the funding and the agency’s plans to implement it. But that’s what FPAC spokeswoman Amanda Heitkamp said Agri Pulse In a written statement, the agency is asking for public contributions, which it will use to implement the funding.

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The statement said NRCS would like ideas on “how to maximize mitigation benefits,” as well as feedback on how best to pursue improvements in soil carbon and reductions in nitrogen losses. The agency is also exploring how it can streamline and improve program delivery to increase efficiencies and expand program access for producers, particularly the underserved.

“In reviewing the public submissions, the NRCS will seek to identify immediate changes that can be implemented to the funds available for FY2023, as well as additional changes and enhancements to support implementation in FY2024 and beyond.” it in the statement.

The agency will share more information about the first year of funding “early next year,” according to the statement. All IRA funds must be spent by September 30, 2031, Suarez said.

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Nina Sackett Kronberg, a start A farmer in northwest Oregon, told NRCS she wanted the agency to use some of the IRA’s money to increase its staff.

“Right now, my NRCS coordinator covers two counties… alone,” Kronberg said. “She is an incredible resource who does a lot of good for the farmers she works with and I want three more to help connect me to your valuable programs just like her.”

An NRCS rangeland specialist in Nevada, Dusty Jager, said in a comment to the agency that the NRCS’s employment efforts have “taken a major hit” over the past three years due to the pandemic and the state’s budget constraints.

Jager, who stressed Agri Pulse that the views were its own and not those of the agency, NRCS said that NRCS should use conservation technical support to hire contract specialists to work with contracts, hire technical staff to work directly with each identified technical area, and Hire project managers to facilitate conservation efforts.

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“NRCS has a wonderful mission that will suffer without the right crowd,” Jager wrote. “These people need to be tapped and their individual skills applied to the areas that serve the conservation mission. Raising funds is exciting and challenging at the same time.”

Chad Allison, who coordinates the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Coastal program, said too often funds are increased without increasing the staff to manage the funds. He also noted that requirements for USDA staff to manage the distribution of funds could hamper the efficiencies that can be provided by private sector and nongovernmental organizations.

The National Grazing Lands Coalition said the agency must use at least 50% of conservation technical assistance funding to bolster the agency’s trained on-site staff to “effectively meet the country’s conservation needs.”

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