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Conservation programs need vocal advocates, Sherman says

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman said today that conservationists and farmers need to do a better job of explaining farm conservation programs during the current budget battles in Congress while Homer Wilkes, the acting associate chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, explained the details of cuts on programs that affect working lands.

"We have to do a better job of telling our story. We have to demonstrate that the programs are making a difference," Sherman told the National Association of Conservation Districts board, which is meeting in Washington before visiting congressional offices on Tuesday.

Sherman said conservation advocates need to explain that these programs help not only with water quality, but a range of issues including saving endangered species such as the sage grouse. He also emphasized that the advocates need to explain the importance of programs that allow USDA to work in partnership with the private sector to achieve conservation goals.

In response to questions about flooding, droughts and whether farm land can remain in production, Sherman said "the climate is changing," and noted that more weather disasters may lie ahead. He also noted that there are 40 million acres of dead forest land from the impact of the bark beetle. Restoring that forest acreage would cost $200 to $2,000 per acre, he said.

Wilkes said that the Agriculture appropriations bill passed by the House of Representatives for the fiscal year 2012 would cut the USDA budget by $2.6 billion, including $130 million for NRCS or 12 percent of that agency's budget.

If the House-passed bill were to become law, the wetland reserve program would be cut by $100 million, Wilkes said. The cuts would also affect the farm and ranch land preservation program, the conservation security program, the snow survey and the plant materials centers, he said.

Noting that the Senate has not yet acted, Wilkes said, "Let folks know what your needs are and tell people about our good work."