The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) administers the government’s conservation policy through a combination of education and technical assistance, economic incentive payments, and regulatory requirements to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals. The NRCS works with private landowners and users as well as communities, tribes, local and state governments and other federal agencies in planning and implementing conservation projects. Areas of technical and scientific expertise include animal husbandry, clean water programs, ecological sciences, engineering, resource economics, and social sciences. The current NRCS Chief is Dave White.
The earliest precursor to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) was the Soil Erosion Service, established in 1933 to institute individualized conservation practices against soil erosion. The agency first began working with farmers in the Southwestern Wisconsin watershed area. In 1935 as part, of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Soil Conservation Act was passed, accelerating nationwide soil conservation efforts for farmers. Now named the Soil Conservation Service, the fledgling agency was placed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and quickly developed demonstration projects across the country, concentrated on select watersheds, that greatly aided those hurt by the Great Depression.
As the agency grew, it worked to include greater input from farmers, creating local districts with elected conservation officials. By 1947, there were one billion acres of land in districts, and by 1973, there were two billion. In the mid-1960s the agency focused on using soil survey data to help communities in their planning and development. The agency also surveyed river basins to identify needed conservation work. Since the 1970s, they have also focused on clean water issues by working with farmers to reduce sediment and pollutants in cropland and pastures and in water runoff. The Food Security Act of 1985 included a “highly erodible lands provision” that required farmers to use conservation measures on erodible land in order to remain eligible for USDA programs such as price support payments and crop insurance. The agency worked with farmers to implement conservation methods.
In 1994, the Soil Conservation Service was reorganized as the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the Federal Crop Insurance Reform and Department of Agriculture Reorganization Act. The new name reflected the agency’s mission of encompassing water, air, plants, and animals in addition to soil. The reorganization put the NRCS in charge of administering many financial assistance programs. Throughout its history, the NRCS has also developed many scientifically-based tools and standards in the fields of agronomy, forestry, engineering, and wildlife biology.
Although the agency has a history of aiding disenfranchised farmers during the Great Depression, current conservation practices derive substantially from successive farm bills that have been passed since 1985. At the same time, farm bill policy in the years since has disproportionately directed payments and support toward the wealthy and a select few crops, with an estimated 60% of the nation’s farmers left out of the subsidy system. It has also ushered in a gradual increase and streamlining of conservation programming and funding.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) administers the government’s conservation policy through a combination of education and technical assistance, economic incentive payments, and regulatory requirements, while working with private landowners and communities, tribes, local and state governments, and other agencies.
Programs target issues ranging from soil erosion, to water supply and quality, and natural disaster protection. Some of the agency’s largest programs include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which provides grants and technical assistance to eligible producers to install or implement conservation practices on eligible agricultural land. The Conservation Technical Assistance Program, which makes up another large portion of the NRCS budget, provides non-financial assistance to communities in the form of resource assessment, practice design, resource monitoring, or follow-up of installed practices. Clients develop natural resources conservation plans or sustainable agricultural production plans, which may serve as a springboard for other USDA funded aid programs.
Other large programs include the Conservation Stewardship Program, which gives participants annual land use payments for conservation performance for the environmental benefits they produce. The Wetlands Preserve Program also offers technical and financial aid to landowners involved in wetland restoration efforts.
From the Web Site of the Natural Resources Conservation Service
Budget Fact Sheet (pdf)
Recipients of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) aid include farmers, ranchers and landowners, agricultural companies, environmental groups, and policy makers. Often, the politics of natural resource conservation are tied with the politics of farm subsidies and price controls, despite World Trade Organization regulations and international trade agreements. There is also a divide between small-scale farmers and ranchers and big agricultural companies over the allocation of funding, exacerbated by the farm lobby, which is dominated by big agribusinesses.
From 2002-2012, the NRCS gave $5.1 billion in more than 155,000 direct payments, more than $1.3 billion in grants, more than $1.1 billion to contractors, and nearly $1.2 billion in other spending, according to a query of USAspending.gov.
According to the FY 2013 proposed budget, the largest funded programs include $1.4 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, $722 million for conservation operations and technical assistance, $972 million for the Conservation Stewardship Program, and $224.3 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program.
NRCS Favors Corporations Over Conservation
The debate over farm subsidies often involves NRCS funding, as many have criticized farm bills for the large amount of subsidies to corporations, while conservation is shortchanged. Conservation efforts are also affected by biofuel mandates that have benefited commodity farmers while causing a drop in Conservation Reserve Program price support payments, for example. Many have also argued that farm subsidies encourage overproduction of more successful crops, discouraging localized production and sustainable practices.
Government's Continued Bailout of Corporate Agriculture (by Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group)
Farm Subsidies Seem Immune to an Overhaul (by David M. Herszenhorn, New York Times)
Agriculture Lobby Wins Big in New Farm Bill (by Brian Riedl, Heritage Foundation)
Conservation reform tends to focus on limiting bureaucracy resulting from a number of overlapping agencies and programs that carry out USDA policy. Many have also pushed for a greater focus on agriculture’s impact on the environment, calling for reform of current conservation programs so that more funding is given to projects that meet environmental objectives.
Realizing the Promise of the FSRI (by the Soil and Water Conservation Society)
Arlen Lancaster, 2006-2008
Bruce Knight, 2002-2006
Bruce I. Knight Biography (Strategic Conservation Solutions)
Environmental conservation efforts regarding privately owned land will be under the stewardship of a committed conservationist with more than thirty years of service in the field. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack named career conservationist Dave White Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) on March 24, 2009. Originally established in 1935 as the Soil Conservation Service as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the NRCS has 12,000 employees and a budget in excess of $3 billion. Today, the primary function of the NRCS is to help administer the government’s conservation policy and practices. NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to private land owners and users, who occupy 70 percent of the contiguous United States.
Arlen Lancaster, the National Resource Conservation Service’s thirteenth, and first Asian American, chief was appointed August 23, 2006, and served until the end of the administration of George W. Bush. A Utah Native and graduate of the University of Utah (B.A in political science) in Salt Lake City, Lancaster worked for Charles Evans & Associates, a political consulting company in Salt Lake City before moving the East Coast. He has worked for the U.S. Congress in a variety of positions—including senior policy advisor and legislative correspondent for Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), in which position he was responsible for legislation dealing with natural resources, Native Americans, tourism and telecommunications. He was also a staff director for the Senate Subcommittee on Forestry, Conservation and Rural Revitalization, and staff member for Senator Robert Bennett. He has worked on the election campaigns of several Republicans, including Bennett, Senator Orin Hatch and Utah Governor Mike Leavitt (R). Before joining the NRCS he served as USDA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations, and played a key role in crafting the conservation title of the 2002 farm bill.