Summary of USA actions
Agricultural conservation technical assistance has taken on a number of dimensions over its long and continuously evolving history. In the most general terms, technical assistance is a service assisting landowners and agricultural producers in conserving natural resources. Addressing natural resource concerns across different landscapes frequently requires multiple disciplines working together to provide a collective pool of conservation knowledge. The current federal framework for applying this conservation knowledge lies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Several agencies within USDA support conservation technical assistance, however, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is the federal lead.
NRCS provides conservation technical assistance to producers through various programs using field staff located across the country. Some level of technical assistance is required for participation in all of USDA’s conservation programs; however, there is no single overarching description of technical assistance for all programs. Similarly, there is no single method of providing technical assistance. The full scope of technical assistance is best understood by examining how it operates within each conservation program. Some see the lack of technical assistance as the foremost barrier to adoption of conservation practices and enrollment in federal conservation programs.
While most technical assistance work is funded through annually appropriated programs, an increasing amount is funded through mandatory programs authorized through omnibus, multiyear, farm bills. The seemingly complex manner in which USDA implements and pays for technical assistance through its conservation programs has created general confusion on the subject. Congress continues to take interest in conservation technical assistance given its complexities and impact on the distribution of conservation financial assistance to producers.
Technical assistance has been discussed extensively at congressional hearings on agriculture conservation. Producers, ranchers, environmentalists, and wildlife advocates continue to raise the issue of technical assistance and the need or desire for additional support. The question of which federal agency should be involved with administering technical assistance and how this relates to the administration of conservation programs continues to be of interest. The expanding use of non-federal, third party providers of technical assistance is also of interest, especially when addressing the demand for additional capacity without an expansion of the federal workforce. A broader perspective on technical assistance raises questions about the capacity of the current technical assistance structure as well as future limitations.
Historically, technical assistance has evolved in the range of topics addressed; it currently addresses a wide variety of natural resource concerns. Recent farm bills have repeatedly added natural resource concerns to the conservation mission, leaving many to question whether the current technical assistance delivery system has retained the capacity to function effectively. Demands on available capital (both human and financial), combined with additional questions for technological capacity and an ever-expanding list of natural resource concerns, have generated an ongoing discussion in the current congressional debate.
This summary was taken from the Congressional Research Service Report RL34069 prepared by Megan Stubbs