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NRCS faces new challenges

DENVER (AP)--The Dust Bowl and preventing soil erosion were foremost in the minds of the early Natural Resources Conservation Service, formed in 1935 as a New Deal agency.

NRCS, which falls under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is using science to help private landowners conserve all natural resources, not just soil, and prepare for challenges including climate change.

After all, private farms and ranches will be vital for feeding a world that could by some estimates grow to nearly 9 billion people within a few decades.

"How do we do that sustainably without trashing our resource base so our kids and kids' kids and little ones who aren't even here yet can go to the grocery store and there are still 10,000 items on the shelf,'' NRCS Chief Dave White said during a break from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association trade show Feb. 4.

As NRCS enters its next 75 years, climate variability is already affecting farmers and watersheds.

In Montana, hot summers have made it more difficult to farm spring wheat, which is harvested in late August. That has made it more tempting to raise winter wheat, which is harvested before the late July and August heat. The earlier harvest could affect how farmers operate and also the availability of fertilizer and equipment, White said.

In the Rockies, mountain snows that melt earlier in the year because of warm temperatures can lead to flooding from spring runoffs but leave not enough water for late summer, when it is needed most, White said.

If cities decide to supplement reservoirs of drinking water supplies by buying water rights from farmers and ranchers, that could take land out of food production.

"Water quality and quantity will be a defining issue,'' White said.

In the short term, White expects the agency's roughly $4 billion budget might shrink going forward, but he sees opportunities for the government to consolidate programs and become more efficient.

White said he'd like to improve NRCS' accessibility on the web, so that people can schedule appointments or ask questions online.

"I see government agencies as lumbering Brontosauruses, calmly munching leaves while the meteorites are about to hit,'' White deadpans. "I'd like to see conservation agencies be more nimble.''

A streamlining initiative is also under way. White's goal is that in four to five years, field staff would spend 75 percent of their time with farmers and ranchers on their land.

Doing that would be the equivalent of hiring 1,500 more people to add to an NRCS staff of about 11,500 employees, he said.

In the continental U.S., about 70 percent of land is owned by private individuals. Initiatives to help them preserve soil, water, air, wildlife and other resources tied to their land include work to switch California farmers to equipment with cleaner engines and funding to project habitat for sage grouse and other species with shrinking populations.

"The fate of the environment rests with the millions of individual decisions the men and women who own the land make every single day,'' White said.



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