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Voluntary Conservation Works Across Party Lines | Commentary

By Bruce Knight and Dave White In a season where Republicans and Democrats find themselves on opposing sides of almost every issue, there’s something on which we both agree: the value and effectiveness of voluntary conservation programs to improve water quality, protect the soil, and preserve and increase habitat for wildlife. We know helping landowners help the land makes sense for agriculture, and it makes sense for taxpayers too.  

One of the issues we both addressed during the time we each served as chief of the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service was the need to enhance and increase habitat for at-risk species. This is a concern that cuts across party lines and political boundaries. And the common sense solutions we implemented work for those on both sides of the fence and demonstrate that those in Washington can understand the needs and interests of those who care for the land.  

During the nine years we served under the Bush and Obama administrations, we both worked with landowners to provide cost-share assistance to install effective conservation measures to welcome wildlife. And we cooperated with the Fish and Wildlife Service to assure farmers and ranchers that the steps they took would be sufficient to meet current and future requirements to protect at-risk or endangered species.  

A case in point is the sage grouse, which by court order the FWS must decide whether to list as an endangered species by Sept. 30. By the early years of this century, sage grouse populations had declined by 90 percent. So in 2004, the NRCS began a multi-faceted strategy to provide technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to increase and enhance habitat for the birds. In 2009, that assistance was ramped up exponentially to treat more than 1 million acres a year. In addition, a new west-wide public private partnership called the Sage Grouse Initiative was formed to advance habitat for the sage grouse. Today, more than 100 partners participate in the initiative and are providing the template for how the nation can cooperatively address endangered species.  

In just the past four years, voluntary conservation efforts through NRCS partnerships have helped protect and restore habitat on more than 4.4 million acres at a cost of $300 million. We are particularly pleased theNRCS has just reaffirmed its commitment to investing about $211 million more through 2018 through its Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0, conserving 8 million acres of sage grouse habitat.  

Of course, the goal of voluntary conservation efforts is to improve the habitat, increase the population, and prevent the need to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. But a secondary goal, especially important to landowners, is to relieve the uncertainty about potential regulations and restrictions that such a listing might bring. Doing the right thing up front should not lead to punitive measures later on.  

Toward that end, we both cooperated with the FWS on several options for guarantees to farmers and ranchers that the voluntary conservation measures they agreed to undertake would be deemed sufficient to meet their obligations, and that they would be held harmless for any incidental take of the birds, provided they met their conservation commitment. In 2010, this resulted in the Fish and Wildlife Service agreeing to provide cooperating landowners with 30 years of certainty from regulatory actions if landowners maintained conservation practices known to benefit sage grouse. In 2012, this certainty was extended to an additional six other species across the country. This has been a tremendous encouragement to landowners to participate in FWS and NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife program.  

Voluntary conservation is a strategy that works for landowners, for wildlife and for taxpayers. It’s a triple win that cuts across party lines and fence lines to improve biodiversity and preserve landowners’ land use options. And it’s an approach we need to continue to support on a bipartisan basis.  

Bruce Knight and Dave White are both former chiefs for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

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