Farm Programs: USDA Should Take Additional Steps to Ensure Compliance with Wetland Conservation Provisions

What GAO Found

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has taken steps to increase the consistency of their determinations about where wetlands exist on farmers’ lands. For example, NRCS state offices formed teams to make such determinations in the prairie pothole region (see fig.), which covers parts of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. These offices also standardized their wetland determination procedures and included more details, such as the types of data that can be used to identify wetland boundaries. Under wetland conservation provisions in federal law, to receive the benefits of certain USDA farm programs, farmers must not convert wetlands to cropland.

Wetlands and Cropland in the Prairie Pothole Region

NRCS’s primary method to ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions is conducting annual compliance checks of selected tracts of land for farmers in USDA programs. To select tracts, NRCS draws a national random sample. The sample is to include about 1 percent of tracts subject to wetland the provisions nationally, so many tracts are not sampled for years. For 2014 through 2018, NRCS identified fewer than five farmers with wetland conservation violations per year on the approximately 417,000 tracts in North Dakota and South Dakota—the states with the most wetland acres. Agency officials said NRCS has limited resources to conduct more checks. However, some USDA agencies emphasize risk-based criteria, rather than a random sample, in selecting tracts to check for compliance with other provisions. Doing so makes the checks more efficient by targeting the tracts most likely to have violations. If NRCS used a risk-based approach for its compliance checks (e.g., using information on acres cultivated annually on tracts), it could more efficiently ensure compliance with wetland conservation provisions.

If NRCS finds violations, USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) may withhold program benefits from farmers, or it may grant waivers to farmers who acted in good faith, without intent to commit violations. FSA granted 243 of 301 requests for good-faith waivers from 2010 to 2018, according to FSA data. FSA relies on committees of fellow farmers to decide on waivers by considering factors such as prior violations. GAO found that some committees relied on weak justification to grant waivers even if farmers had prior violations and that FSA had not specified what is adequate justification. By specifying what constitutes adequate justification, FSA could better ensure it provides benefits only to eligible farmers.

Why GAO Did This Study

Wetlands perform vital ecological functions, and draining them can harm water quality and wildlife habitat. Many wetlands were drained for farming before enactment of wetland conservation provisions in 1985. However, millions of acres of wetlands, known as potholes, remain in the prairie pothole region.

NRCS determines where wetlands exist on the land of farmers who participate in USDA farm programs, and it identifies violations of wetland provisions. FSA administers farm program benefits. In 2017, USDA’s Office of Inspector General reported that NRCS had implemented wetland determination procedures in the prairie pothole region inconsistently.

GAO was asked to review USDA’s implementation of wetland conservation provisions in the prairie pothole region. This report examines, among other objectives, the steps NRCS has taken to increase the consistency of wetland determinations and the approaches NRCS and FSA use to ensure compliance with the provisions. GAO reviewed agency manuals, data, and files on wetland determinations and waivers, and interviewed agency officials and stakeholder groups.

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We identified four general categories of challenges: (1) ensuring that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers; (2) determining the policy objective and measuring potential effects; (3) researching and communicating complicated issues; and (4) engaging relevant stakeholders. For example, allowing sufficient time for writing, review, and any needed revisions is one potential mitigation strategy that could help teams write simply and clearly about technical subjects and ensure that the design and implementation of TAs result in useful products for Congress and other policymakers. In 2019, GAO created the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team to expand its work on cutting-edge science and technology issues, and to provide oversight, insight, and foresight for science and technology. TAs can be used to strengthen decision-making, enhance knowledge and awareness, and provide early insights into the potential effects of technology. Systematically designing a TA can enhance its quality, credibility, and usefulness; ensure independence of the analysis; and ensure effective use of resources. Under Comptroller General Authority, we developed this handbook by generally following the format of the 2012 GAO methodology transfer paper, Designing Evaluations. Below is a summary of the approach we used to affirm and document TA design steps and considerations for this handbook. Reviewed select GAO documents, including Designing Evaluations (GAO-12-208G), published GAO TAs, select GAO products using policy analysis approaches to present policy options, and other GAO reports Reviewed select Office of Technology Assessment reports Reviewed select Congressional Research Service reports Reviewed select English-language literature regarding TAs and related to development and analysis of policy options Consulted with external experts and performed outreach, including holding an expert meeting to gather input on TA design, soliciting comments from external experts who contributed to GAO TAs published since 2015, and soliciting comments from the public Reviewed experiences of GAO teams that have successfully assessed and incorporated policy options into GAO products and TA design, including challenges to TA design and implementation and possible solutions GAO is not making any recommendations. For more information, contact Timothy M. Persons or Karen L. Howard at (202) 512-6888 or personst@gao.gov or howardk@gao.gov.
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