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Ag groups act to limit conservation groups

FARGO, N.D. -- North Dakota agricultural groups are putting the pressure on officials to eject conservation advocate organizations as contract helpers in U.S. Department of Agriculture offices that regulate wetland compliance issues.

FARGO, N.D. -- North Dakota agricultural groups are putting the pressure on officials to eject conservation advocate organizations as contract helpers in U.S. Department of Agriculture offices that regulate wetland compliance issues.

The North Dakota Farmers Union recently passed a resolution that adopted a policy saying, "We oppose the use of special interest groups in making wetland determinations offering technical assistance."

This is a reference to election-time debate over the Ducks Unlimited organization supplying two or three contract workers in USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service offices in North Dakota. DU was one of the primary supporters of Measure 5 that was thumped by a nearly 80 percent majority in the last election. The measure would have mandated state funding of conservation programs by an estimated $150 million.

Mary Podoll, the NRCS state conservationist, has said DU contract employees are simply there to help deliver voluntary programs like the Environmental Quality Incentive Programs, and not for any conservation compliance work.

Advocacy groups

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At the recent NDFU convention, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she's expressed her concerns about the advocacy groups having employees in federal offices that regulate farmers, and she has been told the contracts are in place and will go forward in North Dakota.

In her speech to Farmers Union members, Heitkamp said farmers need quicker handling of wetland determination, so they can be sure their land tiling and other drainage issues are legal -- an issue that requires NRCS approval. She said some went ahead and ran the risk and tiled land.

"I can tell you honestly, a lot of you are afraid to ask (for wetland determinations) and I think you know that," Heitkamp said. "You're afraid you're going to get the heart attack letter, right? You know which one that is, the one where they say you owe us $1 million, right? We call that the heart attack letter."

That's the notice of penalties for paying back government farm program benefits because of noncompliance.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., speaking later to the NDFU, when asked how he feels about the DU contractors in the NRCS offices, said it's his "inclination" not to put advocacy employees in those offices, but he would be listening to organizations including the North Dakota Grain Growers, the North Dakota Farm Bureau and now the NDFU, all who have opposed the practice.

Jason Weller, chief of the NRCS, in a recent interview with the Red River Farm Network, said the contracting work was an attempt to "leverage taxpayer dollars," doubling it with private foundation money.

"The DU money involved hiring partner biologists to work in our field offices to do conservation planning and delivery of assistance," he said.

Long-time fight

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Rhetoric over conservation has not died down after the election.

Heitkamp says she has "been in the fight for a long time," as it applies to farmers' struggles with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over wetlands easements. She says court cases have required the USFWS to identify where its easements are, and it has not done that.

"We continue to fight this fight," Heitkamp says. "This is among my highest priorities, I will tell you honestly. I'd love to see some common sense and some certainty come to farmers as it relates to conservation compliance."

Mark Watne, president of the NDFU, says his organization also re-asserted support for anti-corporate farming laws in North Dakota that block companies, but also organizations -- even nonprofit organizations advocating for conservation or habitat -- from owning and controlling farmland.

"It will compete with agriculture," Watne says. "We don't need that system."

The NDFU supported the expansion of the Heritage Fund for conservation, but was against Measure 5 mandating the spending in the state constitution, and the level of funding.

"And they added the words, 'acquire land,' and that is totally against our policy," Watne says.

The North Dakota Farm Bureau, in its recent state convention, adopted policies to "prioritize opposition to any increased funding for groups or organizations that come to the 2015 Legislature for additional funds for conservation projects, conservation easements and land acquisition," says Policy Director Pete Hanebutt.

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The NDFB didn't pass specific policy on the DU involvement in NRCS offices, says Doyle Johannes, NDFB President, but he adds he sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, saying that kind of involvement would cause the NRCS to "lose all sense of independence."

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Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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