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NRCS seeks comments on interim rules for conservation programs

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is seeking public comments on changes to four programs authorized in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, or 2008 farm bill. Those programs are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program, and the Grassland Reserve Program.

EQIP is a voluntary conservation program that provides technical assistance and payments to help crop and livestock producers address environmental concerns through conservation improvements on agricultural and non-industrial private forest lands. The 2008 farm bill includes non-industrial private forestland as an eligible land use and provides payments for conservation practices related to organic production or the transition to organic production. It also provides for increased payment rates to historically underserved producers, including limited resource, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

WHIP is a voluntary conservation program that provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners to develop and improve high quality habitat for fish and wildlife. The 2008 farm bill authorized three categories of eligible land for this program-private agricultural lands, non-industrial private forest lands and Indian lands. The new farm bill excludes non-agricultural lands and publicly owned lands (federal, state, county or local) from eligibility.

FRPP is designed to help farmers and ranchers preserve their agricultural land. The 2008 farm bill contains several significant changes to FRPP. The program's purpose changed from protecting topsoil to protecting agricultural use. NRCS will provide funding to purchase easements; however, it will no longer purchase easements on its own. Churches, universities and hospitals are now eligible as cooperating entities to purchase easements.

GRP is a voluntary program for landowners and operators to protect, restore, and enhance grassland. The program emphasizes support for working grazing operations; enhancement of plant and animal biodiversity; and protection of grassland and land containing shrubs and forbs under threat of conversion.

The interim rules have been published in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment through March 16 for EQIP, March 17 for WHIP and FRPP, and March 23 for GRP.

The interim final rules can be viewed on the NRCS website at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/farmbill/2008/interim-rules.html or on the Federal Register at www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/.

The interim final rule incorporates statutory changes and establishes the program's proposed policy for the life of the 2008 farm bill. Public comments on this rule will be used to develop final rules.



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