National Resources Conservation Service defends Ducks Unlimited work on ND wetlands

FARGO, N.D. -- The North Dakota Grain Growers Association and others blasted the federal government in press conferences last week for hiring cost-shared Ducks Unlimited staffers into their offices to do contract work.

FARGO, N.D. - The North Dakota Grain Growers Association and others blasted the federal government in press conferences last week for hiring cost-shared Ducks Unlimited staffers into their offices to do contract work.

The grain group, which represents wheat and barley growers, was joined by the North Dakota Farmers Union, the North Dakota Farm Bureau and corn and soybean groups in asking that the National Resources Conservation Service remove Ducks Unlimited employees from district offices in the state, an arrangement agency officials say is longstanding and not harmful to farmers.

Dan Wogsland, executive director of the NDGGA, which represents wheat and barley producers, repeated earlier statements that the arrangement should be stopped because the DU employees are controlled by that organization, whose “interests aren’t necessarily the same as farmers,” and have a political agenda. Wogsland called the DU presence in the district offices a “dangerous precedent that invites abuse.”

He drew a link between the DU contracting and Measure 5, the Clean Water Wildlife and Parks constitutional measure that would set aside funding for conservation spending.

“Measure 5 would set aside approximately $150 million annually toward conservation in North Dakota, with 75 percent - more than $110 million required to be allocated for conservation projects each year,” he said. “If Measure 5 passes, it would allow Ducks Unlimited to apply for grants that could pay for dozens, if not hundreds, of more DU personnel to hit the fields of North Dakota under contract from the NRCS.”


Mary Podoll, state conservationist with the NRCS in Bismarck, says she personally thinks the farm groups are dragging the NRCS “into the mud” in an effort to discredit DU because of its Measure 5 policies. Podoll says contract employees have responsibility limited to voluntary programs that farmers want and need - Conservation Reserve Program, the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and others - and not conservation compliance as the critical groups imply.

“I mostly see this as an effort to make Measure 5 fail, than anything else,” Podoll told Agweek. “Are these groups going to bring people to the table to help with this workload?”

She says, 4,000 people participate in programs annually, and there are 24,000 CRP contracts that need technical assistance. She has a staff of 220 people and could use 250, and there is “no way my budget will allow me to have them,” she says.

Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative for DU’s conservation, agriculture and energy policy, declined to speculate on whether the criticisms are connected to his organization’s support for Measure 5. He underlined that the employees have worked well for many years and are similar to other organization’s arrangements. He says DU has two similar employees in South Dakota, two in Montana and several in Minnesota. None do anything with conservation compliance or policy develop- ment, including wetland determinations.

Podoll says the contract agreements include oversight and allow the agency to leverage its funds to use contributing funding from other organizations that share the agency’s vision for wildlife habitat and that she’s asked the farm organizations if they’d be interested in similar partnerships, with no response.

Wogsland, at the news conference, said if the NRCS needs employees, and if the programs have sufficient value, Congress should appropriate sufficient funds for them.

“The NRCS should employ government employees and shouldn’t be hiring an organization with a direct agenda that can be contrary to those of farmers and ranchers,” he said. “That gives a private political organization carte blanche to push its agenda in a federal governmental entity that has direct bearing on North Dakota farmers and ranchers. Wrong approach.”

He said he has not yet asked the congressional delegation to take a position on the issue.



Federal employees

Caren Assman, executive director of South Dakota Wheat Inc. in Pierre, S.D., says she’s heard “rumblings” about DU involvement in NRCS offices, but “nothing near the feedback” that Wogsland is getting on the topic. She had attended NRCS informational meetings about conservation compliance, meetings with producers recently in Huron, S.D. She says the state has 2,000 wetland determinations backlogged and about 90 percent of those are in Brown County, where excess moisture has increased pothole sizes. North Dakota has about 800 wetland determinations backlogged that farmers have been trying to get finalized to determine whether they can install tile drain, among other things.

Wogsland says he isn’t concerned about whether South Dakota or Minnesota is concerned about a DU conflict of interest.

“I care about what happens on North Dakota farms.”

Podoll says there have been no producer complaints about any assistance delivered by the DU-related workers, and that they operate within set standards.

The DU does hiring and firing but the district conservationists do the daily assigning of responsibilities.

Among other things, Wogsland worries that the organization has the ability to use “whistle blower” functions in the offices where they themselves have “boots on the ground” and have “access to information no one else has.”



About Measure 5

Wogsland spent much of the question-answer period discussing Measure 5, which DU is promoting.

“Where’s the plan? This is $4.5 billion of your money, and no one has told you where one dime of it is going. Would you do that? We wouldn’t.” He said money goes to an out-of-state political organization.

Dane Braun, political policy specialist with the North Dakota Farmers Union, says his organization opposes the measure, in part because the constitution would require spending on conservation and nothing else.

Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, notes that the 2014 farm bill has more money appropriated for conservation spending than for price support programs - $57.6 billion over a 10-year period, versus $44.5 billion for price support payments to farmers.

“The point is, we have enough. Why are we doing this?”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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