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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

First, I would like to thank you for holding this Soil Quality Workshop in conjunction with our SWCS Annual Conference. SWCS members are vitally interested in soil quality and I appreciate the attention this workshop is bringing to this critical conservation issue.

I should also stress that although I will try to be objective in my remarks about soil quality in U.S. policy I am personally not a disinterested observer when it comes to soil quality. I was staff director for the U.S. National Research Council 1993 Soil and Water Quality: An Agenda for Agriculture report that called for enhancing soil quality as the fundamental first step toward meeting agriculture’s environmental challenges. It has been nearly 15 years since the release of that report, but I think its findings and recommendations are just as current today as they were in 1993.

Why Soil Quality Policy?

The first question we need to answer about soil quality policy is what such a policy should be designed to achieve. I think the presentations earlier this morning and during the SWCS conference answer that question well. Soil quality policy must seek to enhance and sustain the full complement of ecosystem services soils provide in agricultural and other managed ecosystems.

Hillary Swain outlined ecosystem services provided by Florida rangelands in four categories: supporting, provisioning, regulating, and cultural services. That taxonomy of services works as well for soils as it does for rangelands. It is those services we seek to enhance and sustain when we argue for a soil quality policy in the United States.

What Policy Do We Have Today?

We are, for the most part, working under a soil erosion control policy that we have inherited from the dust bowl days in the United States. Our soil erosion control policy is constructed from a mix of local, state, and federal erosion control laws, regulations, and programs. To date, the urban environment is subject to a much stricter soil erosion control policy through storm water and sediment control regulations and requirements. The agricultural environment is still largely affected by soil erosion policy through voluntary, technical and financial assistance—with one important exception I will return to later.

Water quality laws, regulations, and programs indirectly lead enhancing and sustaining soil quality—we hope—if the people running those programs fully understand that enhancing soil quality is the fundamental first step toward improving water quality. More recent initiatives to sequester carbon in agricultural soils to reduce green house gas emissions will also indirectly enhance and sustain soil quality.

U.S. farm policy, however, remains the most important federal policy instrument for soil quality in the United States. The soil erosion control effort that came out of the dust bowl achieved a remarkable reduction in soil degradation. Unfortunately, it is very hard to know just how much was accomplished during those halcyon days of soil conservation in the United States. It would be interesting to compare the amount of soil erosion reduction achieved in those early years to what we a accomplishing today. 

One thing is do think is clear though, is that the Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) provisions of the 1985 U.S. farm bill were the most important federal policy intervention in soil resource management since the birth of the soil conservation movement in the 1930s. The HELC provisions required producers to implement a soil conservation plan on fields considered highly erodible in order to receive farm program benefits. The HELC provisions, coupled with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) reduced the risk of soil erosion in the United States by 40 percent—an historic accomplishment. Moreover, the HELC provisions helped spur tremendous innovations in tillage and planting technology that made no-till and other forms of conservation tillage possible.

The National Resource Inventory, however, indicates there has been little or no reduction in erosion risk since those HELC plans were fully implemented in 1995. That lack of progress should give all of us pause to think. I will come back to that in the last part of my presentation.

Since 1985, U.S. farm policy has relied on voluntary incentive and technical assistance programs to address agriculture’s resource conservation and environmental challenges. The 2002 U.S. farm bill increased funding for such programs by 80 percent and invested most of that new money in programs designed to improve the management of working farms and ranches—a major policy advance. Today it is hard to report what that new investment has produced, but the work going on under the umbrella of the Conservation Effects and Assessment Program (CEAP) will give us those answers. But the implementation evaluations SWCS has undertaken suggest they could be much more effective than they are today. Moreover, failure to adequately fund and build the technical assistance and support network in this country is seriously constraining the results that could be achieved with the generous investment taxpayers have made in conservation on working land.

What Needs to Be Done?

The most important work to be done now is to lay the foundation for soil quality policy in the United States. It is encouraging to see how much of this “site preparation” is already going on. 

Important work is being done to develop soil quality indicators and to relate those indicators to the ecosystem services soils provide. That is critically important work. Harder work remains to be done, however.

We will need to set thresholds for soil quality indicators so we know if the capacity of soils to provide the ecosystem services we care about is being degraded, enhanced, or sustained at its current level. If we can’t answer that question, then we can’t implement a soil quality policy. And let me say we need to get away from T (the soil loss tolerance level) as quickly as possible. T is a standard based on an acceptable level of degradation. Such a standard is not helpful as we move toward a soil quality policy. We need thresholds and standards that move us toward building soil quality, not keeping soils from degrading too fast.

We will also need to develop sound methods to monitor change in soil quality at scales relevant to policy makers. I would hope we could at least report status and trends in soil quality at the major land resource area scale and be able to add those estimates up to relevant statements at the national level. It would be much better if we could report trends in soil quality at county, state, and other political units. It will be a challenge to making such monitoring systems technically and economically feasible.
The final site preparation that needs to be done is to help policymakers and opinion leaders understand the ecosystem services that soils provide. Policymakers have a direct and intuitive understanding of water quality, air quality, and wildlife habitat. They drink, breath, and interact with those resources everyday. Understanding of soil—what it is and the ecosystem services it provides—is much more limited. A lot of work will need to be done to raise the awareness and understanding of soil and the services it provides among policymakers and opinion leaders.

What Next?

In the short run, I think the best way to advance soil quality policy is to directly connect soil quality to the natural resource and environmental challenges that are already and will likely drive policy in the future. I think water and energy will be the major drivers of U.S. natural resource and environmental policy—at local, state, and federal levels—over the coming years. Adapting to and mitigating climate change will make water and energy even more pressing challenges.

We know we can only succeed in meeting energy and water needs in the face of climate change if we build soil quality. We need to make that case urgently and effectively. Soil quality will, I think, fare better as a means to meeting the energy, water, and climate change challenge rather than as an end in itself. The value of the ecosystem services soils provide is what we need to focus on. Those services are what people experience and value. They are the values that will move public policy.

In the long run and in an ideal environment, soil quality policy ought to be part of a comprehensive and integrated federal policy framework to enhance and sustain, soil, water, biodiversity and the managed ecosystems we call farming, ranching, and forestry. We are a long way from such a policy, but we could take lessons from the New Zealand Resource Management Act of 1991. That act, coming at a time when New Zealand dismantled their farm subsidies, created a vision, at least of an integrated natural resource and environmental policy for their working land. In 1997, the New Zealand Ministry of the Environment funded a national monitoring program for soil quality as a component of implementing the Resource Management Act.

I have lost touch with what has happened in New Zealand since then, but I think we should look outside the United States for advice and counsel as we think through what soil quality policy should look like in the long term. I am looking forward to Dick Thompson’s report on soil quality policy in the European Union for some of that advice and counsel.

Get Serious

The last thing I would like to say is purely personal and not something that has been discussed within the SWCS Board of Directors or in any other official way. But it is something that many members of SWCS have brought up with me in urgent and often heated discussions:  “When are we ever going to get really serious about soil and water conservation on farms and ranches and what is SWCS going to do about it?.

The facts as I understand them tells us that we are not making progress fast enough to meet the urgent challenges that are already upon us and that will grow in magnitude and intensity in the future. I mentioned before that the NRI indicates we have made essentially no progress in reducing soil erosion since 1995. How can that be acceptable? Other data sets suggest that more advanced nutrient management systems are used on maybe 20 or 25 percent of cropland. Is that good enough? No-till is used on maybe 60 million out of 380 million acres of cropland. As Dory noted we have known of the benefits of crop residue management for over 50 years. Is that the best we can do? And as far as I know, we have no systematic way of know how well our grazing lands are being managed. And the information we have about management of cropland is shrinking every year as funding for inventory and monitoring programs is cut.

As conservation professionals I think it is time to ask ourselves just how long we willing to wait for our current policy framework to produce the results we say are critical to sustaining agriculture, natural resources, and environmental quality. We are sending a very mixed message to opinion leaders and policymakers. We tell them the quality of soil resources is absolutely essential to the health and well-being of future generations. But we don’t seem to sound the alarm when it is obvious—to me at least—that we are not making the progress we need to make, and we may actually be falling behind in the face of climate change.

And the goals we set are too timid. Getting more cropland to an SCI score of 0 is not good enough. We need to be aggressively building soil quality, not just stopping degradation. I understand the process of setting goals within federal agencies. I understand the need to set goals that can be achieved with some certainty. But I think conservation professionals through our professional societies must articulate the goals we think current circumstances call for. Here are two I would throw out:

These are just off the top of my head, but I think they illustrate the kind of goals we need to be talking about. They must be few, compelling, and directly connected to the things people, policymakers, and opinion leaders care about.

I think it is our responsibility to stand up and say that what we are doing today is not good enough. Not good enough by far, despite the advances in technology we have made and the compelling examples of that 10 to 20 percent of producers who are truly conservation heroes. It is also our responsibility to seriously question the effectiveness of the conservation policy framework we are working under and to take urgent steps to reform that policy.

First and foremost, as professionals we must no longer shy away from the urgent priority to target our conservation efforts more effectively. The science is irrefutable that we will not succeed unless we target technical and financial assistance aggressively and effectively to ramp up results. I urge you to look at two new publications from SWCS: Environmental Benefits of Conservation on Cropland, and Managing Agricultural Landscapes for Environmental Quality. The science presented in those reports is compelling. It points the way to dramatic increases in effectiveness of programs IF we get serious about targeting. IF we get serious about getting the right practices in the right places at the right time and at the right scale—what SWCS calls “precision conservation.”

The politics of targeting—even if we call it precision conservation—can be difficult, but they can also work in our favor. Indeed, focusing our efforts on place-based projects that produce real and compelling benefits to a growing number of local communities is the best way to build political support for conservation. Conservation professionals must become effective spokespeople for precision conservation. If we don’t do it, no one will.

I would also urge you to read another publication from SWCS Planning for Extremes. That publication urges us to adopt a risk management approach to conservation planning and implementation. An approach that explicitly considers the damage that may occur from extreme events—events that evidence suggests are already more frequent and likely to become even more frequent in the future. Building the resistance and resilience of agricultural landscapes and watershed, the report argues, must become a primary objective of soil and water conservation. The implications for how we direct and manage conservation efforts are too important to try to cover here in the time allotted, but it is an area SWCS will continue to explore.

There are promising examples of precision conservation and risk management being applied today in conservation efforts in the United States. But those examples must become the rule rather than the exception—and in a hurry—if we hope to meet the natural resource and environmental challenges I think we face.

Asking for more money to do more of the same will not get us far. We need more money, but we also need to change the way we do business. We can and must get more results from the money we currently have. That is our first responsibility. If we do that, I think the money will be more likely to follow.

Finally, I think it is time to take a deep breath, bite the bullet, and begin a serious discussion of whether reliance on voluntary measures is likely to get us where we need to go. I think the scientific research suggests voluntary incentives must be supported with meaningful regulatory measures to achieve the kind of rapid progress we need.

We need to begin thinking through what an effective regulatory framework for agriculture would look like. It must not look much like the regulatory framework we have used to date. We must come up with a new approach. A new approach that uses a regulatory framework to: (1) set out meaningful standards and goals for improvement, and a time line for meeting them, (2) encourage producers to participate in voluntary incentive programs, (3) encourages producers to work together to implement the best strategies within their watersheds to achieve resource conservation and environmental goals, and (4) provides for penalties for what I think will be a small minority of producers who don’t get with the program.


I promise you I understand what I have said today will not be easy to do. There is also no assurance of success. It is a great time to be a conservationist. Not because our job is easy, not because we won’t face opposition, not because we are assured of success, but because our job is so important.

This workshop is a good start. Thank you for inviting me and I’m looking forward to working with you.

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.