|Vol. 8 Issue 7, August 2010|
|In this issue|
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The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up is back for the first time in four years — but the window of opportunity is only open until Aug. 27. CRP is a voluntary program that provides incentives to remove highly erodible land from production and turn it into homes for wildlife and a buffer against soil loss and fertilizer runoff. During the sign-up period farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers may offer eligible land for CRP's competitive general sign-up at their county Farm Service Agency (FSA) office.
"The application process is pretty painless," says Rod Wanger, Conservation Programs Leader for the Oklahoma State FSA Office. "We’ll work with the producers, help them through the process and see where we’re at. The producer can then elect to submit an offer or say, 'No, thank you,' if it doesn’t look right."
Producers enrolling in CRP plant long-term, resource-conserving covers in exchange for rental payments, cost-share, and technical assistance. Participants remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production by entering into long-term contracts for 10 to 15 years. In exchange, participants receive annual rental payments and a payment of up to 50 percent of the cost of establishing conservation practices.
By reducing water runoff and sedimentation, CRP also protects groundwater and helps improve the condition of lakes, rivers, ponds and streams. Acreage enrolled in the CRP is planted to resource-conserving vegetative covers, making the program a major contributor to wildlife population increases. As a result, CRP has provided significant opportunities for hunting and fishing on private lands.
Making an Offer
Every county FSA office has staff that can help landowners determine if their land is eligible and assist them in making an offer.
"A producer shows us what land he wants to offer, and if it’s eligible, we calculate a soil rental rate based on the three predominant soils in that acreage," explains Wanger. "The producer can then make additional selections — such as the type of native grass to plant and added wildlife practices — that can give them more points."
FSA will evaluate and rank eligible CRP offers using an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) for environmental benefits to be gained from enrolling the land in CRP. The EBI consists of five environmental factors (wildlife, water, soil, air and enduring benefits) and cost. The soil type and associated soil properties of the offered land are used as the baseline for calculating the EBI score. These factors cannot be modified; however, there are three components to the EBI score that the producer can modify.
"Of these factors, the most apparent is the type of cover that will be established and maintained under the new CRP contract," says Mickey Woodard, Chief of the Conservation Division at the Texas State FSA Office. "Native grass and forb seeding mixtures are rated higher in the EBI qualifications. If a landowner elects to update the ground cover to a native grass mixture and include a forb then the additional cover points are allotted. In addition to the update of the ground cover, the landowner may elect to include the installation of wildlife enhancements such as a water development or the planting of a pollinator habitat."
The rental rate is another factor in scoring offers. "As in previous signups, an offer may be submitted at a value less than the maximum," explains Woodard. "Additional points based on the percentage of the reduction in rental rate will be added to the offer."
According to Wanger, offering land with native grass cover is a primary factor in the EBI ranking. "If the land has a monoculture grass cover, the producer can convert that to a native grass in order to increase points, but that can be costly and should be evaluated on an economic level. We can help a producer determine what his Environmental Benefits Index score is, but we can’t make projections on what will be accepted." Decisions on the EBI cutoff will be made after the sign-up ends and after analyzing the EBI data of all the offers.
Land currently not enrolled in CRP may be offered in this sign-up provided all eligibility requirements are met. Additionally, current CRP participants with contracts expiring this fall covering about 4.5 million acres may make new contract offers. Contracts awarded under this sign-up are scheduled to become effective Oct. 1, 2010.
In addition to the general sign-up, CRP's continuous sign-up program will be ongoing. Continuous acres represent the most environmentally desirable and sensitive land. All interested landowners are encouraged to contact their local FSA office to learn more about how to take advantage of this opportunity. Due to the available options for enrollment into a CRP contract landowners are asked to contact the FSA office where the administrative records are filed. The local FSA office will assist in completing all necessary eligibility determinations as well as other signup processes.
Barth Crouch, PLJV Conservation Policy Director, advises producers and landowners to take a long, thoughtful look at their cropland. "In this time of volatile commodity prices, farming the best soils and resting those acres that are best suited to grasslands really makes good economic sense — no matter what the markets do."
The terms Decision Support System (DSS) and Decision Support Tool (DST) have become popular jargon in the conservation community. Whether you are familiar with this terminology or reading about them for the first time, it is important to understand what they are and how they can guide conservation actions.
To be successful, we must rely on Strategic Habitat Conservation, a structured, science-driven approach for making efficient transparent decisions about where and how to expend our resources. We must be as effective and efficient as possible — which is why Decision Support Systems and Tools can be invaluable.
For example, a DST can express where on the landscape certain vegetative and other aspects coincide to create positive habitat conditions for a species. In some cases a DST may combine a variety of characteristics to determine areas of highest conservation value; in others it can combine cost, landscape characteristics and programmatic needs to show where habitat programs may have the most wildlife benefit.
So what exactly is a DST and how does it differ from a DSS?
DSS vs. DST
In simple terms, a Decision Support System is a process that helps us evaluate information in order to make effective, efficient decisions about conservation delivery. It may help guide the creation of one or many Decision Support Tools, which are products that help answer specific questions.
A Decision Support System is an analytical process, or series of steps, designed to compile and evaluate the best available information regarding a particular issue or decision at hand. This process can incorporate a variety of information types such as data, conceptual or empirical models and expert knowledge. It may also include the development of new partnerships and workgroups. A DSS often includes examination of spatially explicit data, which can result in maps that identify important geographic areas. These maps may be Decision Support Tools within the broader Decision Support System.A Decision Support Tool is a component of a DSS designed to accomplish a specific task. These Tools can take many forms such as a map, output from a predictive model, written guidance on habitat management or mitigation activities, etc.
What Is Needed for a Good DSS or DST?
A successful Decision Support System or Tool assists decision makers in their strategic habitat conservation efforts by answering critical questions. Developing a successful DST requires thoughtful planning and iterative review. It requires a bit of work, but the benefits from developing an appropriate system or tool can be significantly more effective than haphazard conservation work.
Below we outline key considerations for successful DSS/DST development.
Example of a Successful DST
Let’s take a look at a successful DST and how it was developed.
In 2009, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — along with a working group of oil and gas companies, conservation and science organizations, and state and federal agencies — started to restore abandoned oil and gas infrastructure in southeastern New Mexico to grasslands.
Given limited funds for reclamation and over 350 abandoned oil and gas pads with no mandated reclamation entity, there was a need to prioritize reclamation activities. The intention was to benefit the Lesser Prairie-Chicken; however, BLM’s only way to prioritize work was based on ease of access and travel distance for contractors. With their limited funds, BLM needed a tool that would help prioritize reclamation work in areas that would provide the most and longest-lasting benefit for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.
PLJV received a grant to support the development of a DST to help in the habitat reclamation efforts and began discussions about what was needed for a successful tool with the other partners. A group of area biologists who work within the current range of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken was convened to determine potential criteria for decision-making and settled upon six criteria:
The participating agencies then provided the needed data to PLJV, who developed a GIS map showing highest to lowest priority leases for reclamation. The map includes four tiers of prioritization that can be used individually or in combination for selecting priority locations and can be viewed on a state or county level down to a single township.
The area considered included about 6.5 million acres, with about 200,000 acres selected for prioritization by the DST. From those acres, only about 30,000 have a priority one tier level (darkest blue on the map), which if reclaimed, are predicted to have the largest benefit for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.
BLM is currently using the map to help make decisions on where to remove oil and gas infrastructure based on tiered leases, travel to reclamation areas, willingness of the landowner and the proximity to previously reclaimed areas. Although reclamation work is under way, we don’t yet have a report on how many acres of habitat have been defragmented.
Meetings between the partners are continuing in order to evaluate how the tool is meeting user needs and to revise it as needed. This spring, surveys were conducted and 20 previously unknown leks were discovered. The map layers will be revised based on the new information to provide a more accurate tool.
The same process and basic data layers used to develop the DST described above can also be used with different criteria to produce priority areas for mesquite removal, fence marking, abandoned structure removal and wind siting. However, as each tool is developed, consideration should be given to the type of conservation action, what monetary programs will be paying for the work (and any strictures that come with that money), and what the primary benefit is to be. Each successful DST is unique to the area, habitats and programs that it is being asked to assist.
Watch for more examples of Decision Support Systems in future issues of the Playa Post.
The results from most published studies indicate that recharge rates beneath playas are substantially (1 to 2 orders of magnitude) higher than recharge rates beneath interplaya settings. The synthesis presented here supports the conceptual model that playas are important zones of recharge to the High Plains aquifer and are not strictly evaporative pans. The major findings of this synthesis yield science-based implications for the protection and management of playas and ground-water resources of the High Plains aquifer and directions for future research.
We need your help to get this important information into the hands of farmers, ranchers, irrigators, and other stakeholders in the Southern High Plains. Please contact us to request copies of the four-page executive summary that includes the abstract, introduction and summary of major findings. For those who want more information, we can also provide copies of the full 37-page literature review and synthesis.
To order copies of the executive summary or the full publication, contact PLJV Communication Director Misti Vazquez at 719-488-4460. To view or download a PDF of the full publication, visit http://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1333/.
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