Conservation Service Tackles Backlog of Wetland Determinations

When crop prices went sky high, Hurdsfield farmer Chad Weckerly wanted to add drain tile to aid in ridding his fields of excess water and make them more productive. That required consulting with the Natural Resource Conservation Service to make sure he wasn’t going to be changing a wetland.

Five years later, he’s still going through the process.

The NRCS in North Dakota and other states with substantial wetland areas have struggled to keep up with wetland determination requests. Though the North Dakota office has used new techniques to shrink its backlog, people involved in the process say more improvement is needed.

Since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, producers who want to use certain U.S. Department of Agriculture programs have been prohibited from draining wetlands. The NRCS, a division of the USDA, has to determine what makes up a wetland and how producers can farm in those areas.

The high prices of 2011-12 came around the same time as advancements in subsurface tile drainage technology, leading to a significant increase in requests for wetland determinations, said Jenny Heglund, assistant state conservationist for compliance at the North Dakota office of the NRCS. In addition, a wet cycle for the past 20 years has made some formerly dry land into possible wetlands. The North Dakota backlog of determinations reached nearly 4,000 in 2012.

Weckerly’s case was among those. At one point, the NRCS determined there were 118 wetlands on a 640-acre section he farms. Many of those supposed wetlands were so small “you can’t park the tractor on” them, he said. Other spots were dry much of the year. He would like to see a minimum-size definition for wetlands.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau, of which Weckerly is a director, supports legislation proposed by Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson that they say would enact permanent reforms that make the determination process more efficient, accountable and transparent.

Darryl Lies, president of the Farm Bureau, said many producers shouldn’t have to wait years to find out what they can do on their land.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said.

Tackling a problem

The NRCS doesn’t like it, either. Bogged down under the weight of the determinations, the North Dakota staff started looking at new methods to handle the process.

“We put together a dedicated team of conservation professionals in order to basically focus only on developing wetland determinations for agriculture purposes,” said Heglund. They now use imagery, elevation data, soil information and other resources from their offices to make preliminary technical determinations.

If producers don’t agree with that or want to provide more information, then NRCS staff members make farm visits. They also do farm visits for reports of unauthorized wetland drainage.

Weckerly said he has had Heglund visit his farm to review the preliminary technical determination, and he found that process helpful. He was able to show Heglund that many of the 118 “wetlands” on his section were little more than puddles.

The NRCS also has been looking at alternatives to the process. It has ramped up assistance to producers who wish to manipulate wetlands by creating a new wetland elsewhere, Heglund said.

The backlog has gone from nearly 4,000 to more than 700. Heglund said 500 to 800 requests come in annually, so it might take a few years to get to the bottom of the backlog. The new process also has cleared up some misunderstandings and has allowed producers to assist in providing photographs and information about drainage that aid in the process, she said.

“They’ll do whatever they can to give information up front to help make a determination that makes sense,” Heglund said.

Legislation looming

Weckerly wants to see producers have more influence in the process, as well as more certainty. The proposed legislation would put a 60-day deadline on the NRCS to make determinations, as well as streamline the appeal process and improve transparency.

If the legislation were to be passed, Heglund said meeting a 60-day deadline would take more staff, additional off-site tools and refined methodology. But once the backlog is cleared up, she hopes the process moves faster than it has in recent years.

“Our thought process is it should take three to four months once a person has a request,” she said.

Three or four months “would be a definite improvement” over the current situation, Lies said. He believes the real issue is that the NRCS needs to be accountable to the farmers whose livelihood depends on what they can do on their land.

“Farmers get all sorts of guidelines of what they can and can’t do on their land, but yet the agencies that are responsible for giving them the determinations so they know what they can and can’t do don’t seem to have expectations of performance,” he said.

Heglund explained the NRCS doesn’t want to push out determinations so fast that they lose contact with producers, who often need to understand how to stay in compliance in order to maintain USDA benefits.

Weckerly says he is glad he began the process. He wants more certainty about where wetlands are on his property so he knows not only where he can use drain tile but also where he can use chemicals that can’t be used within given distances of wetlands. But he advises farmers to be ready to advocate for themselves.

Heglund didn’t want to comment on the proposed legislation, but she said Cramer’s office has done its research and has been in contact with the NRCS about the issue. She said her office is committed to trying new ways to clear the backlog.

Source: Jenny Schlecht, Bismarck Tribune

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