Hoeven, farm groups see ‘conflict of interest’ in conservationists’ work for USDA

By Tiffany Stecker | 03/12/2015 06:53 AM EDT

Of all of the conservation groups that could irk a senior GOP senator from North Dakota, Ducks Unlimited isn’t an obvious example.

Of all of the conservation groups that could irk a senior GOP senator from North Dakota, Ducks Unlimited isn’t an obvious example.

The group is part of the hook-and-bullet sportsmen’s corps, whose allegiance to Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation principles has broad appeal on both sides of the aisle. Ducks Unlimited, along with Pheasants Forever, Trout Unlimited, and other hunting and fishing groups, has long advocated for clean water and undeveloped lands to sustain the wildlife needed for its sport.

But Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), a self-described "avid sportsman," told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing last month that Ducks Unlimited, among other wildlife groups, was causing concerns in his state’s farm communities. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service contracts the nongovernmental group’s biologists to help farmers make decisions around the 2014 farm bill’s conservation programs — voluntary initiatives growers can take to slow soil erosion, clean up waterways and rebuild habitat.


"There’s concern on the part of our farmers that [this] creates a potential conflict of interest or a problem when NRCS is using a group like DU on this wetlands compliance issue," Hoeven told Vilsack.

The "compliance issue" is conservation compliance. Since the passage of the farm bill last year, farmers must show they are meeting basic conservation standards before they are eligible for federal crop insurance. This includes not draining wetlands — a provision known as "Swampbuster," with origins in the 1985 farm bill when it was first tied to direct farm payments. Swampbuster was decoupled from payments under the crop subsidy overhaul of the 1996 farm bill, and reattached — this time to crop insurance — in 2014.

Wetlands play an important role in the Midwestern environment. In addition to providing habitat for a variety of birds, fish and mammals, they help filter water pollutants, recharge groundwater and mitigate flooding.

The Swampbusters issue is particularly heated in the Midwest’s Prairie Pothole region — North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota — where wetlands far away from the nearest river or stream have generally been considered outside of the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction over the past decade and a half. Although an NRCS wetlands determination is not a legal requirement here, it’s nevertheless critical given agriculture’s reliance on federal crop insurance. Growers have until June 1 to certify their compliance with USDA.

Thousands of farmers in the region are lining up for a wetlands determination as the agency’s backlog grows bigger, South Dakota Sen. John Thune (R) and Iowa Rep. David Young (R) told Vilsack and NRCS Chief Jason Weller in two separate hearings last month.

With the political turmoil rising in farm country, particularly around water protection issues like the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States proposal, even the most conservative of conservation groups are treated with heavy-handed skepticism.

Farmers "have a concern with all of the groups being there, working for NRCS, coming out of the farm, actually working for USDA but having a, you know, a different mission," Hoeven told E&E Daily last week. "They’re worried about the conflict of interest, because it seems like there’s straightforward concern on their part so we want to make sure we handle it in a way that addresses that concern."

Hoeven added he could imagine a possibility in which the issue would manifest into a policy rider on an appropriations bill, but that he would wait for a response from Vilsack first. If USDA can’t resolve it, Hoeven said he would look at addressing the issue either through an appropriations bill or through reauthorization. The agriculture committees in both chambers are set to reauthorize both the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the child nutrition programs this year.

Vilsack seemed taken aback by Hoeven’s suggestion of impropriety.

"Yours is the first comment that I’ve received expressing concern about the collaboration, and it’s — actually, to be honest with you, senator, it’s a little surprising," the secretary told Hoeven.

Steve Adair, Ducks Unlimited’s director of operations for the Great Plains regions, said the organization’s contract with NRCS is grossly misunderstood. USDA funds biologists, many of them fresh out of college, from Ducks Unlimited and other organizations to meet with landowners and help them fill out applications for conservation programs. These partnerships effectively double NRCS’s personnel while cutting costs. The biologists are barred from working on any regulatory practices, including wetlands determinations.

"NRCS created a firewall between them and the people who do that work," Adair said. "The concern is that these people work on wetland determination, and that’s not at all what they do."

Pete Hannebutt, director of public policy for the North Dakota Farm Bureau, said Ducks Unlimited does more than just paper shuffling.

"I’ll just tell you that’s bullshit," Hannebutt said when asked to comment on the biologists’ jobs of helping farmers fill out applications.

Hannebutt’s concerns center around wetlands mitigation, the remediation of one section of a wetland to offset the draining of another section for crop production. Ducks Unlimited does not oppose wetlands mitigation and provides for it under the Clean Water Act, though not for Swampbuster under the farm bill.

"DU has not performed any Swampbuster mitigation at this time. We do not oppose mitigation," Adair wrote in an email.

Hannebutt maintains that the presence of Ducks Unlimited runs counter to USDA’s mission of promoting agriculture.

"Fair is fair, we don’t expect to put our advisers in NRCS offices and take our pick of issues," he said, adding, "Nothing in the USDA charter says it’s there to promote ducks in the United States."

The 2014 farm bill boosted farmers’ mitigation options for complying with the Swampbuster provisions, setting aside $10 million to develop mitigation banks in which farmers could buy credits to offset wetlands drainage rather than having to do the restoration themselves.

While many conservation groups do not oppose mitigation banks outright, the science of making up wetlands loss must be rigorous and reflect real environmental benefits, said Jan Goldman-Carter, senior manager for wetlands and water resources at the National Wildlife Federation National Advocacy Center. For example, 10 1-acre wetlands do much more to restore wildlife habitat than one 10-acre wetland.

A square 10-acre pond "does not give you equivalent functions and values," Goldman-Carter said. But in the Prairie Pothole region, "that is not an atypical response."

Reporter Annie Snider contributed.