by Mark Parker

Think of a conservation plan as the cornerstone—the first building block in a process of not only preserving natural resources but also putting landowners on the road to eligibility for programs to help improve their land.

“A conservation plan is a picture in time of where you are today compared to where you want to be in terms of taking care of your resources the best you can, according to current knowledge,” explains Cherokee County District Conservationist Scott Williams of the Natural Resource and Conservation Service (NRCS).

While the goal is always natural resource conservation, having a plan and working it can lead to a host of benefits, he adds:

“A conservation plan is the foundation for qualifying for a lot of very important and very helpful programs— the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) the Conservation Security Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program and others. Basically, you need to start with a conservation plan to participate in just about any program we offer.”

A conservation plan, Williams explains, is a footprint of where you are today and where you’d like to go with resource management. It includes up-to-date imagery of the land itself and begins with the landowner and conservationist actually walking the ground to identify problems and opportunities.

“We try to find out what the landowner wants to accomplish and then we send a technician out to figure out how to make that happen,” he says. “Our job is to provide alternatives for the producers and let them choose what suits them best.”

Williams stresses that the conservation plan belongs to the landowner—not to NRCS.

“This isn’t something we try to dictate,” he says. “Producers should get what they want out of it and they shouldn’t be afraid to ask if there are other ways to accomplish their conservation goals.

“It’s their conservation plan, not ours. I think that’s pretty important because the farmer is much more likely to implement the plan and take care of the practices if it’s what he wants.”

The components of a plan can include several practices, depending on individual situations. They may include waterways and terraces and crop rotation as well as nutrient, pest and residue management.

Those, Williams says, are the tools used to accomplish natural resource conservation goals but how they’re used depends on the producer and the situation.

“If we’re trying to meet a certain soil loss equation, for instance, we may be able to accomplish that through residue management and crop rotation rather than relying on structural practices such as terraces,” he explains.

Williams also emphasizes that the practices prescribed in a conservation plan don’t have to be written in stone:

“We can, and need to be, flexible up to a point,” he says. “We know that no matter how much planning we do, Mother Nature can change things in a hurry. That’s something we can’t control so we can build a certain amount of flexibility into the plan.”

He adds that, even after the landowner, the conservation district and the NRCS signs off on a plan, it can be modified if needed.

“The important thing is to do our best to protect our natural resources,” Williams says. “We don’t want to handcuff anybody—we want to assist them in developing a workable plan that protects and enhances their land.”

It’s obvious that the conservation component of farm programs has become more and more important in recent years and there is little evidence to suggest that trend is going to change.

Programs such as the Conservation Security Program (CSP) offer significant financial benefits to producers who are carrying out their conservation plans.

A three-tiered program, CSP, represents a departure from previous efforts. Rather than paying landowners to fix existing problems, CSP rewards them for the conservation efforts that have already been made—the larger the commitment to conservation, the larger the payment.

“I believe it will be increasingly important for farmers and landowners to make a commitment to conserving natural resources,” Williams concludes, “and working with your local NRCS office on developing, updating or working on a conservation plan is definitely the starting point.”

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