Ten years ago, John “Chip” Merrill expressed deep concern regarding the direction of private grazing lands conservation programs. His concern grew out of the Food Security Act of 1985, which mandated conservation compliance on private cropland.

To make sure farmers across the country met the deadline for conservation compliance, personnel from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) — then the Soil Conservation Service — were reassigned from assisting ranchers with grazing lands conservation programs.

Along with across-the-board funding cuts, traditional conservation planning efforts slowed to a standstill. By 1990 only 2.2% of the NRCS budget was allocated to technical assistance directed to conservation on private grazing lands, Merrill says.

Speaking at a May 1991 grazing conference in Bozeman, MT, the Crowley, TX, rancher said he and other ranchers were concerned that “compliance” was the first step in a tendency toward federal control of private agricultural land. He pointed out that voluntary conservation efforts had established a remarkable track record stretching back to the days of the “Dirty 30s.”

Merrill also pointed out that regulation or “spying” for other federal land and wildlife agencies by NRCS personnel would not be tolerated.

“There is no way that NRCS can be both regulatory and work in a volunteer atmosphere,” he said. “The relationship with locally governed conservation districts would be totally destroyed.”

From that 1991 conference came a private-public partnership — the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI). It now includes 42 active state GLCI coalitions and a myriad of agricultural organizations and individuals across the nation.

Since its beginning, GLCI's top priority has been the restoration of voluntary technical assistance to the owners and managers of non-federal grazing lands through locally governed conservation districts, says Bob Drake, Davis, OK, national GLCI chair.

To help address the funding problem, conservation of private grazing land (CPGL) legislation was lobbied for and passed as a part of the 1996 Farm Bill. The intent was to provide up to $60 million for acceleration of NRCS technical assistance efforts. The bill passed Congress but hasn't been funded.

“We continue to see a decline in overall available field technical assistance from NRCS,” says Drake. “This is really hard to understand and even harder to accept when one considers that voluntary technical assistance is so cost-effective.”

GLCI will continue to press for an expanded federal commitment to voluntary technical assistance on grazing lands, says Drake.

A LARGER VISION

The national GLCI steering committee recently sponsored the first National Conference on Grazing Lands in Las Vegas. Nearly 900 men and women from around the country gathered to discuss federal funding of GLCI programs.

“This conference was not only timely but hopefully will influence the policy discussions concerning agriculture and the environment,” says Drake.

While conservation proponents want to be sure the next national farm legislation supports CPGL, Merrill has proposed an even larger vision for conservation of private grazing lands. In his keynote address at the Las Vegas conference, Merrill outlined a proposed “Conservation of Private Lands Act.” He believes this type of omnibus law, either in the next farm bill or as stand-alone legislation, has support in Congress. Merrill is calling for an effort to support such an initiative. Among other things, this legislation would provide:

  • Funding to restore NRCS technical assistance to pre-1985 levels.

  • Increased research funding for soil, water, plant and wildlife sciences.

  • Funding for conservation outreach efforts involving Extension agencies and universities.

  • Cost-share assistance for grazing lands conservation.

Merrill points out that massive funding has been appropriated in the name of conservation for the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal environmental and land management agencies. He says the time has come for the public and Congress to realize that private lands in private hands are the greatest renewable resource in the U.S.

“The vast majority of conservation work and costs have been borne by the owners and managers of private lands,” he says. “The most cost-effective means of continuing land and water conservation is adequate funding of voluntary technical assistance, research, education and incentives — not regulation.”

Merrill challenges conservation professionals to seriously consider the future of private grazing lands conservation efforts.

“If we don't enthusiastically defend and aggressively promote the grazing land resource, our profession and even ourselves, who will?” asks Merrill. “There will be a great ecological, economic, ethical and aesthetic loss to our nation if we don't.”