COLUMNISTS

Plan to address wetland determination concerns shared

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Farm Forum

Sometimes issues are talked about at meetings, and we don’t know if action will be taken.

At the end of July, more than 350 people attended a public forum on wetlands determinations in Aberdeen. At that meeting, farmers stood up and explained why they were not happy with the process in dealing with requests.

In meetings after the public forum, representatives from four ag groups met with the speakers to follow up on details, especially focusing on customer service. The message from the meeting was that the voices were being heard and something would be changed.

Since that time, Jeff Zimprich, NRCS State Conservationist, and others have been steadily working on a plan to address the concerns.

On Sept. 25 at the NRCS State Technical Meeting in Huron, Zimprich provided an overview of the S.D. Wetland Compliance Action Plan to about 60 people, detailing what his office plans to do in response to concerns.

In a presentation that he shared, Zimprich said four main areas have been identified:

1. Need to address the oldest requests and reduce the backlog.

2. Wetland consultant process should be improved.

3. S.D. NRCS needs to provide technically correct wetland determinations.

4. Improve customer service and communication.

Each of the four areas had a list of actions, including seeking additional dollars to address the backlog, evaluate staffing, establish a compliance specialist position, and provide additional training and coordination, including workshops for staff.

In addition to those items, other areas identified for action include: How wet weather patterns impact determinations, temporary minimal effect determinations, the 30-day appeal period and separation of duties.

An informal session with the S.D. Soybean Association, S.D. Farm Bureau Federation, S.D. Farmer’s Union, S.D. Corn Grower’s Association and South Dakota’s three congressional offices reviewed the plan before the Sept. 25 meeting. Representatives offered suggestions and comments.

“The document doesn’t involve financial resources, but it does provide an outline of how the staff will address the issues with additional or reallocated staff,” Zimprich said.

Zimprich indicated that the document will continually be updated with additions added as needed. Updates will be presented at the State Technical meetings until the plan is complete.

Zimprich said they also reviewed proposed state offsite methods, which set methodology for the staff to follow to make wetlands determinations offsite.

“Many determinations are made offsite and onsite, with the collection of a lot of data,” Zimprich said. “This State Technical Committee Meeting really focused on our wetland determination process. From this meeting, a more detailed document, in conjunction with North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa, will move forward. This will be published in the Federal Register and allow comments to be made during a 90-day period. “

At that time, producers will have the chance to look at the plan and respond to the proposed actions. That’s part of the process.

After that, “We will analyze the comments and make changes to the plan,” Zimprich said.

Zimprich invited feedback by calling him at (605) 352-1200 or sending comments to Kathy Irving at kathy.irving@sd.usda.gov.

Reaction

John Horter, president of the S.D. Soybean Assn., said he was at a meeting on Sept. 22 when the plan for wetlands was unveiled. “We were pretty happy with what they laid out for us.”

Horter said he heard the Sept. 25 meeting was really positive. About half of attendees were ag people, so it was really good that producers are getting involved, he said. They listened to details being considered and provided feedback.

Watching for progress

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Wayne Smith of the S.D. Farm Bureau said. “It’s frustrating and complicated. The goal for the July meeting was to get the agency to get the work done within one year of the farmer’s request to provide determinations.”

The Action Plan is definitely a step forward. Smith said they support what’s in the plan, but in the same breath, they really hope the plan will speed up the process. There have been promises in the past. Some restrictions come from the national level, but Smith hopes work can move forward quickly. Farmers are frustrated with being told they need to be patient.

He said communication and customer service needs to be a priority. “I’m not sure where the disconnect has come from in the past. What happens in offices is different from what Jeff Zimprich would like to see,” Smith said.

As the process gets expedited, there are concerns about changes in staffing with new staff coming on to make determinations. It’s very detailed and intense; it’s not an overnight or even 3 months process to get those new people trained, Smith said.

“We want this to work and farmers need to see positive results. It’s crunch time,” he said.