Focused on resources: NRCS releases new tool for resource stewardshipWritten by Saige Albert
Conservation planning continues to be more and more important as ranchers and rangeland managers are faced with challenges from Endangered Species Act listings and environmental groups seeking removal of ranching from public lands.
In seeking an increase in producers involved in conservation planning, Lori Metz, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) rangeland management specialist, says, “The Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool framework came as an initiative from NRCS Chief Jason Weller to try to create different avenues for more producers to get involved in conservation planning efforts.”
Weller encouraged the planning process and emphasized the use of sound science and technology in all NRCS projects.
The tool evaluates management and conservation activities compared to stewardship thresholds related to soil health, water quality, water quantity, air quality and wildlife habitat.
“We need to run through this process before we start contracting and constructing under the various programs that we have,” Metz says. “Resource stewardship is a blank assessment of the quality of different resources in production agriculture. It provides a snapshot of key resources.”
The information gleaned from the Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool is presented as a bar chart that shows producers which areas they can work to improve and what areas they are excelling at in terms of conservation and stewardship of resources.
“This framework is one of the foundational steps we can use before we implement programming,” Metz adds.
The Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool targets specific land uses in establishing thresholds and sustainability goals, Metz says, noting that grazing land, cropland, forest, wildlife and other uses are all differentiated.
“Thresholds have been established by solid science,” she explained, noting that factors like vulnerability to erosion or nutrient leaching are considered. “The cropland side is very science-oriented based on what we know about how soil responds to different inputs.”
The grazing tool also follows sound science, but much of the tool is qualitative.
“The grazing tool is an assessment of what ranchers take into consideration to make management decisions and how quickly they make those decisions,” Metz explains. “Are they waiting until the drought is 90 percent over before they destock or are they making decisions more proactively to keep ground cover and help landscapes stay more resilient to drought impacts?”
Producers utilizing the tool are asked to supply grazing and monitoring plans, including contingency plans for drought, fire, flood and other uses.
“Ranchers must show that they have a document in place that guides their decision making,” she says.
After plans are submitted, Metz explains that NRCS staff provides a score based on the complexity of their decision making process and the information that is integrated into decision making.
“We give producers more points based on how complex their decision making process is,” she says. “For example, if they are using weather data, drought monitor information and vegetation clippings instead of visual estimates, they will receive more points.”
The availability of the Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool will be determined by state NRCS offices, which may offer the tool in all watersheds across the state or only in specific areas of concentration.
“We are targeting this effort through the National Water Quality Initiative,” Metz says. “It may only be available in specific, target watersheds. That decision is up to the individual states.”
NRCS adds that during fiscal year 2016, a minimum of one watershed in each state will complete the Resource Stewardship Evaluation process on all approved contracts to establish benchmarks and measure progress.
The goal will also serve to help NRCS employees and producers gain familiarity with the tool and provide producers an opportunity to give feedback on the framework.
NRCS is also currently developing an online tool that allows producers to answer a series of questions and receive a report on their home computer.
“If producers aren’t comfortable with utilizing our online tool, they can go to their NRCS field office and sit down with a planner to complete the evaluation process,” Metz explains.
After the evaluation is complete, producers receive a score – called a benchmark.
“A benchmark is where the producer is at the point in time the evaluation is done,” she says, noting that producers will receive a report on completion of the evaluation.
The report also includes threshold levels, which are desirable conditions.
Threshold levels established in the tool were determined by a team of NRCS specialists through the national NRCS office. Point values reflect values agreed upon by all team members, which included rangeland and pasture specialists, area and state range conservationists and producers.
Working with producers
Metz also emphasizes that the tool conforms to all confidentiality standards currently upheld by NRCS.
“The Environmental Protection Agency and others won’t have access to this information,” Metz says. “It is all confidential.”
“If a producer goes to their NRCS office and works though the Resources Stewardship Evaluation tool with a planner, that is a good way to start,” she says. “The information from the tool could be used to work with NRCS to create a conservation plan that helps producers to improve their land.”
The grazing tool is expected to be released in March, and Metz encourages producers to contact their local NRCS office for more information on the program.