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2007 Soil and Water Conservation Society - Soil Quality Workshop

"Soil Quality: the Foundation for Natural Resource Quality"


Craig Cox
SWCS Executive Director

Thank you for coming to this break out session focused on the role soil quality assessment plays in U.S. policy. Before starting I think it would be helpful to think about the taxonomy of policy in which soil quality assessment could play a role. I think that will help us understand where soil quality assessment fits into the structure of U.S. natural resource and environmental quality.

Most people break down the types of policy that operate in the United States in three categories: (1) judicial, (2) legislative, and (3) administrative. The three types of policy parallel the three basic institutions in our government: the courts, Congress, and the Executive Branch.

Soil quality assessment has not, as far as I know, had any role in amendments to the U.S. Constitution and rulings by the Supreme Court or other federal courts. Congress has passed laws that require monitoring of soil resources, but it is administrative policy that has been and likely will continue to be the most important policy arena for soil quality assessment.

Soil Quality Assessment in Legislation

By far the most important piece of federal legislation related to soil quality assessment is the Land and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1997. That Act, commonly known as the RCA Act, required the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct regular assessments of land and water resources in the United States and to develop a national conservation plan to conserve and protect those resources.

The RCA Act resulted the National Resources Inventory—a national, statistically sound inventory of “nonfederal” land in the United States. The first focus of the NRI was to detect changes in land use and to assess rates of erosion. Since its inception the NRI has been adapted for additional purposes. Most recently the NRI sample frame has become an extremely important foundation for model simulations used to identify—at large regional or national scales—regions and resources that may be at risk and to evaluate the effect of policy changes on those resources. The RCA appraisal and assessment process used NRI results as well as information from many other sources to estimate the status, condition and trend of natural resources. That information was to form the basis for the National Conservation Plan to lay strategies and action needed to enhance and sustain those natural resources.

The first RCA Appraisal and National Conservation Plan, released in 1982, were highly influential. High-level USDA officials were regularly involved in its preparation. The results of the Plan and Appraisal led directly to the innovations in the 1985 farm bill. Succeeding RCA Appraisals and Plans never achieved that level of influence again. Today the RCA Appraisal and Plan process is largely ignored. The Conservation Effects and Assessment Project (CEAP) is recovering some of the influence the RCA process once had and Congress is considering reauthorizing and updating the RCA Act as part of the 2007 farm bill.

The big challenge for soil quality assessment—whether part of CEAP, a renewed RCA process, or under a different umbrella—is to develop affordable and feasible systems to inventory and monitor soil quality at scales relevant to policy. This is a challenge that I hope we can meet, but it is not yet clear we will.

Soil Quality Assessment in Administrative Policy

Administrative policy is by far the most important venue for soil quality assessment. Soil quality has entered administrative policy ranging from the official rulemaking process to the technical guidance and tools used to ranking applications for participation in conservation programs.

The Conservation Security Program (CSP), for good or ill, put soil quality assessment into the political realm when the Soil Conditioning Index (SCI) was used to determine eligibility to participate in the CSP. Unlike more traditional conservation programs that only compensated producers for a portion of the cost of implementing conservation practices, CSP paid farmers for practices and systems that were already in place. That meant CSP payments went straight to the bottom line, increasing producer’s income in a similar fashion to crop subsidies. The distribution of such “free money” quickly became a political as well as a technical issue. Many people began to question the role of SCI as a gateway to that “free money.”

The debate, as Susan mentioned in her talk, has raised the issue of how payments should be structured under CSP and other financial assistance programs. Should we scale payments based on the conservation outcomes produced—based on change in resource condition indices such as SCI—or should be scale payments based on the level of effort—read cost—a producer must take to achieve an improvement in resource condition. In theory it is best to pay based on conservation outcomes, but in practice such an approach can lead to inequitable outcomes. Again, as Susan noted, some producers can easily increase carbon in their soils because of the soils and climates in their area facilitate building carbon. Other producers must take heroic action to build carbon because the soil and climates in their area make building carbon very difficult. So, do we pay some producers a lot for doing very little while paying other farms very little for doing a lot?

My conclusion is that soil quality assessment most appropriately plays the following role is shaping administration policy:

My sense is payments should be based on level of effort and a more comprehensive estimate of cost. But soil quality assessment should ensure that the practices and systems we encourage actually do improve soil quality. More important, soil quality assessment should be used to scale combinations of practices and systems so that payment schemes can effectively reward those producers whose actions are doing more to enhance soil quality.

Craig Cox - Craig Cox is the Executive Director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. Craig has devoted his working life to natural resource conservation beginning in 1977 when he joined the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources as a field biologist. Since that time he has served as Senior Staff Officer with the Board on Agriculture of the National Academy of Sciences; Professional Staff Member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Special Assistant to the Chief of USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service; and briefly as Acting Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at USDA. He is currently Executive Director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society -- a professional Society dedicated to promoting the art and science of natural resource conservation.