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Rounds Leads Bill to Reform NRCS and Protect Property Owners from Government Overreach

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) reintroduced legislation to reform the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The NRCS Wetland Compliance and Appeals Reform Act would safeguard farmers, ranchers and landowners from bureaucratic overreach by the NRCS and empower producers to continue to protect their land as they see fit.

“South Dakota’s farmers, ranchers and landowners know their land better than anyone else,” said Rounds. “They are conservationists by nature and want their land to be productive for future generations. They don’t need the heavy-hand of government interfering with their ability to manage the land they live and work on.

“For years, we have worked with South Dakotans who are facing arbitrary, punitive penalties by the NRCS. In South Dakota, we know that the NRCS has made unfounded wetland determinations and levied large and unfair monetary fines where the landowner has little or no recourse. The reforms I have introduced modify some of the NRCS’ compliance rules in a manner that works for landowners, gives farmers and ranchers more control over their land and removes unnecessary, and often unfair, barriers and penalties.

“The NRCS was created to work with farmers and ranchers to help them improve, protect and conserve their land and natural resources. Over time, it has veered far from that core mission, morphing into an overreaching, overbearing agency that makes heavy-handed decisions about South Dakota producers’ land using questionable methods and rationale. Landowners in South Dakota and across the country increasingly battle the NRCS on wetland determinations. Farmers and ranchers already have to battle the wind, rain, snow and sun; they shouldn’t have to battle the government, too.”

Once considered wasteland, wetlands were often drained so farmers could plant crops. Growing concern over the loss and appreciation of the value of wetlands in the ecological system led Congress to take action to protect wetlands in the 1985 Farm Bill. However, today, because penalties from violating NRCS compliance rules can lead to the loss of USDA services and assistance for farmers, it is vitally important that the NRCS compliance rules are fair, reasonable and within congressional intent.

The NRCS Wetland Compliance and Appeals Reform Act has been endorsed by the American Farm Bureau Federation and South Dakota Farmers Union. 

“Permanent easement agreements mean decisions made by previous generations could impact future generations,” said South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke. “Each generation needs to be able to make decisions that make sense for their farm or ranch. I don’t expect my sons to manage the land exactly how I did or the same way my dad or grandpa did. This Act supports landowners’ rights.”

Specifically, Rounds’ legislation would:

  • Prohibit the NRCS from entering into permanent easement agreements, only allowing termed easements.
  • Make certain compliance penalties for newly determined wetlands can only be prospective.
  • Place the burden of proof on the NRCS to prove a violation, rather than placing the burden on the farmer/landowner to prove innocence.
  • Prohibit the NRCS from changing rationales for wetland determinations.
  • Require the NRCS to go through notice and comment rulemaking for conservation compliance, essentially banning the use of interim rulemaking.
  • Require the USDA to develop an appeals process for redetermination requests that are not accepted by state NRCS offices.
  • Require the USDA to establish state oversight committees, for each state, that will oversee the appeals of wetland determinations within each state.
  • Prevent the NRCS from using one-time observations to satisfy the hydraulic criteria for determinations.
  • Remove all references to “woody vegetation” from 7 CFR 12.2 and 12.32.
  • Create a customer satisfaction survey carried out by an independent survey provider.

This legislation would also update the NRCS’ appeals process by:

  • Retraining the National Appeals Division judges and agency directors in how to provide a fair and balanced hearing.
  • Requiring the USDA to provide the entire record and/or decisional documentation to the farmer/landowner at the time of alleged compliance violation.
  • Allowing the farmer/landowner and their counsel to call the NRCS technical staff as witnesses in the appeal.
  • Accepting evidence provided by the farmer/landowner as true absent substantial evidence to the contrary.
  • Compensating the farmer/landowner for legal fees if they are successful in the appeal.

This legislation has been cosponsored by Senators John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.).

Click HERE for full bill text.