Agriculture's Soil Conservation Programs Miss Full Potential in the Fight Against Soil Erosion

RCED-84-48: Published: Nov 28, 1983. Publicly Released: Nov 28, 1983.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Brian P. Crowley
(202) 512-9450
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

GAO reported on those aspects of the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) three major conservation programs which deal with soil erosion, including: (1) the seriousness of soil erosion; (2) USDA bases for allocating resources to, and measuring the results of, the programs; (3) possible changes that could improve the programs' effectiveness; and (4) USDA follow up on previous report recommendations.

USDA has estimated that about 6.5 billion tons of soil erode annually and that conservation programs are not keeping up with the problem. Data are not presently available to give a clear estimate of the consequences and costs of erosion or to enable allocations of resources to be made in such a way that federal conservation programs obtain the greatest benefit for the resources spent. USDA decisions for allocating resources to combat soil erosion have generally not been predicated on factors directly linked to minimizing erosion's harmful effects. USDA plans to modify its resource allocation approaches to base judgments on erosion abatement needs on the extent of soil displacement. It may be some time before USDA is able to obtain the optimum data needed on erosion's harmful effects and to allocate soil conservation resources on that basis. However, some improvements for more effective use of resources at local levels are possible in the near term. GAO found that some disagreement exists as to whether soil erosion could be substantially reduced through more widespread use of conservation tillage farming methods. Finally, GAO questioned the purposes of USDA cost sharing of conservation practices in certain situations, but found that USDA policy has been changed in this area to meet the specifications of a previous GAO report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: On November 2, 1984, ASCS advised GAO that, where multiple components are installed, it is difficult to attribute specific reductions in soil loss to each individual components since the combined results are not the sum of applying the individual components.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should revise CRES data analysis procedures to ensure that the combined soil erosion reduction benefits of several conservation practices are not attributed to a single practice when conservation practice cost/benefit tables are developed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should reassess research priorities concerning conservation tillage to ensure that allocated resources sufficiently address the needs identified in the January 1983 SCS research needs report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On November 2, 1984, ASCS advised GAO that it is continuing to explore ways to increase county participation in its variable-rate cost-share program. However, ASCS believes the program should remain voluntary and not be expanded nationwide as suggested in this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should expand ASCS variable-rate cost-share pilot project as quickly as practicable to: (1) obtain a representative sample of all counties where the Universal Soil Loss and Wind Erosion Equations' formulas can be used; (2) expand the variable-rate concept programwide if test results are favorable; and (3) reorient resource allocation at the local level using CRES cost-effectiveness as the short-term criterion and reductions in erosion's harmful effects as the long-term criterion.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should require that SCS include in its report to the local ASCS committee, where applicable, a list of alternative practices that could effectively address an applicant's erosion problem.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should require that SCS test the feasibility of variable-rate cost sharing for its Great Plains Conservation Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should require that the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) provide local ASCS committees with the Conservation Reporting and Evaluation System (CRES) generated cost/benefit data, statistically significant at the local level, for all approved soil conservation cost-sharing practices as soon as these data become available and require that these data be used as a basis for future decisions on providing ASCS conservation assistance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should establish a policy that will: (1) recognize that the USDA primary soil conservation objective is to reduce erosion's harmful effects as opposed to simply achieving reductions in soil displacement; and (2) require USDA agencies to allocate conservation funds according to a prioritization of erosion's harmful effects at the earliest possible time. Similar approaches would need to be followed in the allocation and use of conservation funds at state and local levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should require the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to reassess its research needs priorities regarding the relative position of soil conservation research within its overall research program as well as erosion/productivity research within the soil conservation program. Such a reassessment should: (1) ensure that allocated resources sufficiently address the severity of erosion's threat to the nation's long-term cropland and productivity; (2) consider and clearly describe how the ARS program will address the erosion/productivity research needs described in the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) January 1983 research needs report; and (3) address the need to resolve the issue concerning the degree to which various kinds of soils can tolerate erosion before degradation occurs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should require that specific and detailed guidance, coupled with assistance approval certifications, be established and used at all state and local levels. This guidance should ensure that the government does not cost share practices primarily used to enhance production or defray costs that are, or should be, part of normal farming or ranching operations, rather than to provide enduring conservation benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 6, 2016

Aug 24, 2016

May 26, 2016

Apr 18, 2016

Mar 24, 2016

Mar 10, 2016

Feb 4, 2016

Sep 29, 2015

Mar 25, 2015

Feb 19, 2015

Looking for more? Browse all our products here