Farm group questions Ducks Unlimited, fed agency

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Farm Forum

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A group representing North Dakota wheat and barley farmers is raising questions about the working relationship between the federal government’s main conservation agency and a private group that works to boost wetlands and waterfowl.

The North Dakota Grain Growers Association says the government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service should not be using nonprofit Ducks Unlimited personnel “as foot soldiers for its work.” The Grain Growers fears such a relationship might infringe on farmers’ ability to use their land as they see fit, and hurt them financially.

The NRCS works with landowners to conserve, maintain and improve natural resources and ensure landowners are complying with regulations. Producers who don’t comply could lose eligibility to participate in federal farm programs.

Grain Growers Executive Director Dan Wogsland said the association recently found out that NRCS was using Ducks Unlimited members to help with the agency’s work. “Ducks Unlimited will have undue influence on programs that impact North Dakota farmers and landowners,” Wogsland said.

That is not the case, Ducks Unlimited spokeswoman Becky Jones-Mahlum said. She said the waterfowl nonprofit, the NRCS and state conservation agencies jointly fund “farm program biologist” positions “in response to great demand from private landowners for U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation programs.”

The private professionals work with landowners who approach NRCS about voluntary conservation programs, providing “background information and help with paperwork,” according to Jones-Mahlum.

“(They) are not involved in any regulatory programs or policy development,” she said. “They work solely on voluntary incentive-based conservation programs for which landowners are interested in signing up.”

Wogsland said the setup “opens the door for abuse.”

“For example, if someone on the regulatory side of NRCS goes over to one of the Ducks Unlimited personnel and says, ‘what do you think of this map?’ they (Ducks Unlimited) are going to have undue influence,” he said. “It is a clear conflict of interest.”

NRCS State Conservationist Mary Podoll did not immediately comment on the Grain Growers’ claims.

In South Dakota, the NRCS in recent years has used private consultants to help with a massive backlog in certified wetland determinations, which help landowners know where wetlands are located so they can drain areas without getting into trouble.

State Resource Conservationist Gerald Jasmer has said the agency does not rubber-stamp information the consultants provide. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether some of the consultants are affiliated with Ducks Unlimited.