Those who have lived for any amount of time in a western ranching community will not be surprised by news that the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the US Department of Agriculture, overpaid landowners for “conservation” benefits. According to a report in the Capital Press, a western Ag weekly reporting on a March 25th House Agricultural Sub-committee hearing, between 1999 and 2003 the agency illegally inflated payments to landowners for “conservation easements" by hundreds of millions of dollars. Another audit by the agencies Inspector General found that NRCS officials in five states didn’t check to see if landowners lived up to the terms of easement contracts. One of the states reviewed – California – is located in the West. The others were Missouri, Arkansas Louisiana, Florida and Maine.
You can read opening statements by witnesses testifying at the March 25th hearing, including the USDA and GAO auditors, at the House Agricultural Committee’s web site. Here are a few highlights of testimony to the Committee.
From the USDA Inspector General:
We found cases in which landowners had not notified FSA and continued receiving improper farm subsidy payments for land where conservation easements had been purchased by the Government.
NRCS has fewer resources to monitor its easements for compliance with program requirements.
We plan to apply a similar approach and methodology to our planned review of the $145 million allocated for watershed operations projects.
From the Government Accounting Office:
GAO previously reported that USDA’s process for allocating EQIP funds was not clearly linked to the program’s purpose of optimizing environmental benefits.
GAO reported that USDA does not have adequate management controls in place to verify that farm program payments, including those for conservation programs, are made only to individuals who do not exceed income eligibility caps. As a result, USDA cannot be assured that millions of dollars in farm payments are proper.
03-06 $49.4 million paid to landowners who may have been ineligible due to income limits.
From the Inspector General's audits of the Wetland Reserve Program:
During calendar years 2003-2005, 5 of the 6 States we reviewed did not annually monitor 134 of 153 (88 percent) of our sampled WRP easements. We visited 92 of the 153 easements and found violations on 37. In one case, we found substantial dumping of hazardous debris, which destroyed about 8 acres of restoration. Generally, the State offices told us that they lack the resources to annually monitor the easements.
We, too, determined that these five States were not able to reasonably monitor an increasingly large number of WRP easements on an annual basis with the resources available to them. During calendar years 2000-2005, the 5 State offices’ monitoring responsibility almost doubled—from 1,584 WRP easements to 2,971. Meanwhile, these States lost almost a quarter of their WRP full-time equivalents (FTEs)—from 69 to 53.11 With easements increasing and FTEs decreasing, NRCS had fewer resources to monitor its easements for continuing compliance with program requirements.
These revelations are really not new. While they were reported at a recent Congressional Hearing the audits on which the testimony is based go back at least a decade. And there is no indication that Congress has the will to actually reform “conservation payments” to farmers. In fact, by decreasing NRCS staffing levels at the same time they were ramping up conservation program payments, Congress and the Bush Administration set up a situation in which waste, fraud and abuse could flourish. According to NRCS the reason it did not monitor 80% of wetland reserve conservation easements for compliance was “inadequate staffing”.
On the other hand President Obama has often promised that his administration will review all government programs and eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. As recently as April 18th the president reiterated the promise in his weekly radio address.
But does the Obama Administration have the will to take on the Agricultural Lobby? Ag’s friends in Congress include powerful Democrats as well as Republicans. Indeed Congressional Democrats vie with their Republican colleagues to deliver pork to the Agriculture Industry. These congresspersons and senators are spectacularly uninterested in knowing whether on-farm conservation payments are delivering conservation benefits.
And don’t look for reform from the NRCS either – an outfit that fits the description of a “captured agency" to a tee.
I can still remember when an NRCS district conservationist admitted to me that perhaps he had “become too close” to the agricultural community in California’s Siskiyou County. The official had colluded with the California Department of Fish & Game to approved using salmon restoration money to rip-rap streamside habitat for the Bank Swallow, a protected species in California. NRCS employees who do not "fit in" with the local farmer and rancher "culture" are soon persuaded to transfer to a different region or even a different agency. This particular employee had just transferred to Idaho.
I also remember when the rancher who headed the Farm Service Agency/NRCS local coordinating committee for many years retired from that position. There was a party and a big spread in the local paper. In the article the Ag leader bragged about how the Committee had managed to convince USDA officials to alter federal program rules so that the programs would benefit local farmers and ranchers. Amazingly this respected individual did not seem to see any problem with the practice of "convincing" government employees to alter program rules.
After living in this community for 35 years I can attest to the skills local farmers and ranchers have developed in working over these bureaucrats until they comply with local desires – regardless of what the regulations say.
Absent a concerted public outcry, continued subversion of the stated intent of USDA conservation programs is likely to continue. Judging from the reactions to the March 25th Congressional Hearing, it is unlikely that such an outcry will be heard any time soon. A web search found that only one news source – the Capital Press – reported on the hearing. Since it is read mostly by the beneficiaries of USDA’s conservation programs, the Capital Press report is unlikely to mobilize a groundswell for reform. Nor have any of the big environmental groups yet focused attention on abuse of government conservation programs. In fact most environmental organizations lobby for increased spending on USDA conservation programs without attention to whether the promised benefits are actually being delivered.
For the foreseeable future it appears likely that USDA Conservation Programs will continue to transfer funds from taxpayers to Ag operators without assurance that promised public benefits will be forthcoming.