Agricultural Conservation:

USDA Needs to Better Ensure Protection of Highly Erodible Cropland and Wetlands

GAO-03-418: Published: Apr 21, 2003. Publicly Released: May 21, 2003.

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Annually, over a billion tons of soil erodes from the nation's cropland, and thousands of other acres, including wetlands, are converted to new cropland. Soil erosion reduces the land's productivity and impairs water quality; drained wetlands reduce flood control. Under the 1985 Food Security Act, farmers risk losing federal farm payments if they do not apply conservation practices to reduce erosion or if they drain wetlands. Concerns about soil erosion and wetlands conversions continue, however, as do concerns about the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service's implementation of these provisions. GAO reviewed field offices' and headquarters' implementation and enforcement of the 1985 act's conservation compliance provisions.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service has not consistently implemented the 1985 Food Security Act's conservation provisions. Inconsistent implementation increases the possibility that some farmers receive federal farm payments although their soil erodes at higher rates than allowed or they convert wetlands to cropland. According to GAO's nationwide survey (refer to GAO-03-492SP), almost half of the Conservation Service's field offices do not implement the conservation provisions as required because they lack staff, management does not emphasize these provisions, or they are uncomfortable with their enforcement role. For example, field offices do not always find a farmer in violation for failing to implement an important practice, such as crop rotation, and do not always see whether a farmer has corrected the problem; they also do not always check for wetlands violations. The Conservation Service's weak oversight of its field offices further impairs implementation of the provisions. In the process of selecting samples of cropland tracts to assess farmers' compliance, the Conservation Service disproportionately emphasizes tracts with little potential for noncompliance, such as permanent rangelands. This selection process leads to inflated compliance rates. The Conservation Service also has no automated system to promptly inform its field offices of the tracts selected for compliance reviews or to enable the offices to efficiently report their review results. Therefore, the field offices cannot conduct timely reviews--during critical erosion periods--and provide headquarters with up-to-date information. Finally, the Farm Service Agency, the USDA agency responsible for withholding benefits for violations identified by the Conservation Service, often waives these noncompliance determinations without adequate justification. Without support from the Farm Service Agency, the Conservation Service's field staff have less incentive to issue violations.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve USDA's implementation of the conservation compliance provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, as amended, and to better protect the highly erodible croplands and wetlands covered by those provisions, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to develop a nationwide, automated system, such as a web-based system, for efficiently managing information needed to conduct compliance reviews and report results.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRCS developed and implemented a Web-based compliance review system and reengineered its compliance review process to (1) achieve a more timely distribution of information on the tracts selected for compliance reviews and (2) provide an efficient, user-friendly means for field offices to report, and NRCS headquarters to review, the status and results of these reviews. For example, information on tracts randomly selected for review is now provided to state offices in January to facilitate the conduct of compliance reviews during the critical erosion period in the early spring. To verify that NRCS took these actions, in 2006 we reviewed NRCS documents and interviewed headquarters, state, and county officials. However, in doing this work, we noted confusion in some states over coding terminology used in the Web-based system, leading to either over- or underreporting of violations. The actions taken are responsive to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA's implementation of the conservation compliance provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, as amended, and to better protect the highly erodible croplands and wetlands covered by those provisions, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to establish and maintain a consistent methodology for collecting, analyzing, and summarizing data to identify patterns and trends in enforcement across regions and states and over time.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2003, NRCS implemented a Web-based compliance review system, which allows headquarters and state office personnel to review compliance data submitted by county offices. In addition, NRCS's Operations Management and Oversight Division analyzed and reported on 2003, 2004, and 2005 compliance review results. These reports discuss apparent anomalies and propose recommendations to make compliance reviews more consistent with NRCS policy. For example, the 2003 report stated that 31 percent of the tracts receiving waivers in 2002 were not reviewed for compliance in 2003, as they should have been. The report recommended that NRCS correct this problem. In response, NRCS put a change in its Web-based compliance review system to automatically flag tracts for review that received a waiver the previous year. To verify that NRCS took these actions, we reviewed NRCS documents and interviewed headquarters, state, and county officials. The actions taken are responsive to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA's implementation of the conservation compliance provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, as amended, and to better protect the highly erodible croplands and wetlands covered by those provisions, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to develop a more representative sample of tracts selected for compliance reviews that excludes land that is not subject to the compliance provisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRCS has taken steps in cooperation with USDA's Farm Service Agency to minimize the number of tracts selected that are not subject to the compliance provisions. In 2004, NRCS increased the national sample size from about 13,000 to over 17,000 tracts and revised its National Food Security Act Manual to provide field office staff guidance on replacing tracts not subject to the compliance provisions. In 2005, 20.7 percent of randomly selected tracts were determined to be invalid and replaced. Furthermore, in 2006, NRCS and FSA initiated a pilot project in six states to eliminate the selection of invalid tracts, and the agencies planned to extend this pilot to all states in 2007. To verify that NRCS took these actions, we reviewed NRCS documents and interviewed headquarters, state, and county officials. The actions taken are responsive to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA's implementation of the conservation compliance provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, as amended, and to better protect the highly erodible croplands and wetlands covered by those provisions, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of NRCS to periodically provide training for field office staff on how compliance reviews should be conducted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRCS incorporated training on the conduct of conservation compliance reviews in national workshops it held in 2004 and 2005. These workshops were attended by the agency's state office managers. These managers then provided this training to their county office staff. NRCS officials also provided further training to state and county officials in some states, when requested. To verify that NRCS took these actions, in 2006 we reviewed NRCS training documents and interviewed headquarters, state, and county officials. In general, these officials said the periodic training has been very helpful. The actions taken are responsive to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve USDA's implementation of the conservation compliance provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, as amended, and to better protect the highly erodible croplands and wetlands covered by those provisions, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to increase oversight of field offices' conduct of compliance reviews to improve the accuracy and completeness of the reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2003, NRCS implemented a national, Web-based compliance review system to monitor field offices' progress in completing reviews. In 2004, NRCS revised its National Food Security Act Manual to ensure that its compliance review guidance is consistent with statutory and regulatory provisions. This manual is used by NRCS's field office staff to guide their work. NRCS also plans to issue a new edition of this manual after farm bill reauthorization that will update guidance on wetlands compliance reviews. NRCS state and county officials in five states that we contacted in 2006 said the Web-based system and revised manual have significantly improved oversight. For example, several noted that the Web-based system has (1) helped organize reviews by standardizing data entry and (2) allowed state managers to better monitor the progress of reviews done by county officials. However, NRCS officials in two states said that they do not randomly select field office compliance reviews for quality assurance checks, as required by NRCS guidance, primarily because of conflicting work and limited staff resources. In this regard, according to a 2006 report to OMB addressing NRCS's implementation of GAO's recommendations, NRCS said it plans to develop a more comprehensive quality assurance system in the future. The actions taken are responsive to GAO's recommendation. The additional actions planned would achieve further improvements in the accuracy and completeness of field offices' compliance reviews.

    Recommendation: In addition, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator of the Farm Service Agency to ensure that decisions by the Farm Service Agency's field offices to waive NRCS's findings of noncompliance are justified and documented.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FSA issued a notice in November 2005 to its state and county offices emphasizing the agency's procedure that must be followed when granting faith waivers of violations. The notice reminds FSA staff that the Food Security Act permits a waiver only if the farmer acted in "good faith" and without intent to violate the conservation compliance provisions, and that decisions to waive violations must be adequately documented. Almost all FSA field staff in five states that we contacted in 2006 were familiar with this notice. Further, several said that the notice caused them to be more attentive to FSA procedures concerning good faith waivers. However, our work in 2006 also showed that (1) 14 of the 19 good faith waivers granted in 2004 or 2005 that we examined did not have documentation to clearly explain the basis for the waiver; (2) since 1999, the percentage of benefits reinstated through good faith waivers granted by FSA county committees has been over 70 percent, and was 91 percent in 2005; and (3) county committees continue to feel pressured to grant good faith waivers to most violators because the farmers involved are neighbors of the committee members and not granting waivers could cause economic hardship for these farmers. It is clear that FSA must do more to ensure that decisions made by its field offices to waive NRCS's findings of noncompliance are justified and documented. The FSA action taken to date--issuance of a notice in 2005--does not provide a sufficient basis to close this recommendation as implemented.

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