South Dakota farm groups support Rounds' wetland conservation reform bill

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum

U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service could see an overhaul if a new reform bill comes to pass.

Sen. Mike Rounds

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) introduced the NRCS Wetland Compliance and Appeals Reform Act, a bill which makes some significant changes to its wetlands conservation programs. First introduced as a "swampbuster" provision under the 1985 Farm Bill, the programs protect the nation's wetlands and offers financial compensation to agricultural producers who agree to avoid farming on conserved areas.

The most significant change proposed by the legislation is a provision that would prohibit the NRCS from creating permanent conservation easements, or agreements that dictate the land's only use is for conservation. Currently, the USDA's conservation branch and landowners can agree to reserve wetlands for conservation for 30 years or perpetually.

Scott VanderWal

Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, said the current conservation terms are unfair to landowners who buy or inherit farmland with perpetual easements, because they set restrictions on land usage that may not be necessary once ownership is exchanged or the land itself changes.

"It is the right of that land owner to enter into a perpetual ease, but perpetual means forever, and we think there should be some flexibility," VanderWal told Farm Forum.

SDFB and the American Farm Bureau Federation endorsed the bill. South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke also said the organization supports the reform act.

Doug Sombke, president of South Dakota Farmers Union

"We've advocated for [wetland reforms] for some time, and we hope it will pave the way for a state law in South Dakota," Sombke told Farm Forum.

The bill would also reform the wetland determination process, which establishes whether an area qualifies for conservation and the value of the reserved property, and makes the NRCS responsible for proving violations of easement agreements.

"[NRCS] will come out and say, 'This is wetland,' and if the landowner wants to appeal it, sometimes it goes to the national level," VanderWal said. "With property rights in mind, we feel wetland proof should be on the government. It shouldn't be on the farmer."

Additionally, the wetlands reform act would also require the USDA to establish State Oversight Committees to oversee wetland determination appeals; prohibit NRCS from new provisions to the wetland determination process; and update NRCS' appeals process, including requirements that the USDA provide landowners with documentation indicating alleged conservation compliance violations and compensation for landowner's legal fee if they win an appeal.

U.S. Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) cosponsored the legislation.