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Know the West

The deficit may enable reform of Farm Bill Conservation Programs


I have previously written for the HCN blogs about the “waste, fraud and abuse” which successive USDA Inspector General Reports and Congressional hearings have documented. Prior to that, in a letter to HCN editors, I pointed out pervasive abuse in implementation of the $50 million Klamath EQIP program established by the 2002 Farm Bill.   

Klamath EQIP promised to save Klamath River water for salmon by improving on-farm irrigation efficiency within the Basin in order to reduce agricultural water use and leave more water in stream. Instead, the funding was most often used to drill new wells and install new irrigation systems designed to exploit groundwater. This provided Klamath River Basin irrigation interests with an alternative to surface irrigation water. However, farmers who were gifted with expensive new wells and center pivot irrigation systems at taxpayer expense were not required to forgo surface irrigation in return. Instead they have used the new wells to sell water to the Bureau of Reclamation so that the Bureau can meet ESA requirements and still make full irrigation deliveries. Meanwhile the US Geological Survey found that the increased groundwater pumping is permanently lowering the water table in the Lost River Basin.

Another study, commissioned by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, found a doubling in groundwater pumping for irrigation in one of the Klamath’s largest tributaries -- the Scott River -- as the main factor explaining the progressive dewatering of that river and key tributaries.  

The Natural Resource Conservation Service -- part of the US Department of Agriculture -- administers Farm Bill Conservation Programs. NRCS fits the classic profile of a “captured” agency -- government workers at NRCS typically behave as if they work for the local agricultural establishment rather than taxpayers. 

The NRCS uses “local committees” to “assist” in administering these programs. The Agriculture Industry’s powerful lobbyists work to make sure that Farm Bill fine print enables these local committees to define local rules and procedures governing Farm Bill Conservation Programs. Members of the committees are all farmers, ranchers or agribusiness managers. USDA Inspector Generals have found that local committees are implicated in the “waste, fraud and abuse” that infect Farm Bill Conservation Programs.

NRCS workers know that abuses are taking place, but whistleblowers are rare. The experience of one recent NRCS whistleblower illustrates why that is the case: 

Anthony (Tony) Valvo is employed as a Geo-Spatial Analyst at the Cavalier, North Dakota NRCS office. Valvo, who spent most of his career in the navy and private sector, was placed on administrative leave after he filed a complaint with the USDA Inspector General alleging abuses at the Cavalier office. Among his complaints, Valvo alleges that conservation payments were made to agribusiness companies without verification by NRCS employees that the conservation measures had actually been implemented. Valvo had repeatedly asked local superiors to address the issues to no avail. When local supervisors found out about his complaint, he was placed on administrative leave. The full story is available in the Walsh County Record newspaper and on the Whistleblower Support Blog.  

Farm Bill and other government funding enable the ongoing rapid expansion of private land conservation. In a study published in 2006, the national Land Trust Alliance found that between 2000 and 2005 US state and local land trusts doubled their conservation acres from 6 million to 11.9 million – an area twice the size of the state of New Hampshire.  The study also found that in 2005 a total of 37 million acres of private land in the USA were under some form of conservation and that private land conservation acreage was growing most rapidly in the West.  

National environmental groups lobby for increased Farm Bill conservation funding. They assume that because private land is “conserved” using public funds the promised conservation benefits are guaranteed. The environmental establishment ignores the fact that Farm Bill Conservation Programs are rife with fraud and abuse. The Obama Administration has also turned a blind eye to calls for reform. The strong political support for Big Ag’s interests by key Congressional members of both parties is a likely deterrent to reform. 

Obama’s FY 2012 budget proposal, however, may indicate that the Administration is taking a backdoor approach to conservation program reform.  As reported by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Administration is proposing big cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program, among others. It may be just a coincidence, but these three are precisely the Farm Bill Conservation Programs which have experienced the greatest incidence of Inspector General verified waste, fraud and abuse.  It remains to be seen whether Big Ag’s powerful lobby and their friends on both sides of the aisle will reverse the proposed cuts to programs well known to be rife with boondoggles. 

Work in Congressional Committees toward a new Farm Bill in 2012 is also underway.  Given the emphasis by leaders of both parties on cutting spending, the 2012 Farm Bill represents an unprecedented opportunity to reform Farm Bill Conservation Programs. Whether that opportunity will be realized, however, depends on whether the environmental community and government waste organizations like Taxpayers for Common Sense  and the Government Accountability Project seize the opportunity.   

Unfortunately, some national environmental organizations have become big recipients of Farm Bill and other government conservation payments as have some sport fishing organizations. The Nature Conservancy, for example, is lobbying to maintain “enhanced deductions for conservation easement donations” and “the targeted use of Farm Bill reserve (conservation) and cost share programs.”  THC is among the nation’s large landowners and benefits directly from the “enhanced deduction.” 

Will a coalition effort to reform Farm Bill Conservation Programs in order to eliminate “waste, fraud and abuse” and assure that these programs deliver the conservation they promise emerge this year?  Does “hope spring eternal in the human breast?”  If you are a member of an environmental, fishing or conservation organization, you might want to improve the chances that reform will replace knee-jerk support, and ask your organization’s leadership to prioritize Farm Bill Conservation Program reform.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Felice Pace has lived in the Klamath River Basin since 1975. For 15 years, he worked for and led the Klamath Forest Alliance as Program Coordinator, Executive Director and Program Director. He remains part of the Alliance’s Core Group, and now consults with environmental and indigenous organizations on fund raising and program development. He currently resides at Klamath Glen, near the mouth of the Klamath River.