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Letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, Together With a Policy Statement, on Soil and Water Conservation Programs

December 21, 1982

Dear Mr. Speaker: (Dear Mr. President:)

I am pleased to transmit a Statement of Policy, an appraisal of this Nation's soil and water resources, and the Secretary of Agriculture's program for departmental conservation activities as required by the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977.

The Secretary of Agriculture's program provides important guidance for the near and longer term management of the Nation's soil and water resources. The wise use of these resources will assure continued availability of food and fiber to meet domestic and world needs. My Statement of Policy provides further guidelines for implementation of the recommended program.

The Secretary's program is based upon findings developed from extensive surveys and evaluations of the current state of this Nation's soil and water resources. It is designed to correct identified problems through targeting Federal assistance to priority problem areas. It also calls for a greater role for State and local governments for the conduct of programs to assist private landowners in solving resource problems to protect the long-term productivity of this Nation's soil and water resources. The documents which are being transmitted to the Congress today will be helpful in your consideration of soil and water conservation policies, programs, and budgets.

I look forward to working with the Congress as you review these documents and my Statement of Policy in the coming months.




Today I am transmitting to the Congress this Statement of Policy for planning, implementing, and allocating resources for the soil and water conservation programs of the U.S. Department of Agriculture between now and 1987. This is required by Section 7(a) of the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977, Public Law 95-192. Accompanying this statement are other documents required by this Act: Parts I and II of an Appraisal of the condition and trends of soil, water, and related resources in the United States and a Program and Environmental Impact Statement containing the program that has resulted from this appraisal.

These studies show the condition of the soil and water on two-thirds of America's land—the rural non-federal land of the United States. This land totals 1.5 billion acres, and most of it is privately owned. It includes the farms, ranches, and private forests where almost all of our food and natural fibers and much of our pulp and timber are produced.

The natural resources on our rural lands are vital to the present and future welfare of the American people. The soil and water on these lands are basic to the production of food and fiber for domestic and world needs. Maintaining the productivity of these resources is essential to American agriculture and to the health of the Nation's economy.

American agriculture has achieved the greatest record of production in the world. A free market economy, mechanization, research, adequate capital inputs, fertile soft and water management have contributed to that record. These factors and others have generated an agricultural system that not only provides a varied and inexpensive supply of food for U.S. consumers but also feeds a significant part of the world's population.

Despite this unsurpassed record, however, the Appraisal reveals that inadequate resource management in some areas is damaging our soil and lowering the quality and quantity of our water resources. Soil erosion, for example, was reduced by soil conservation practices in the decades following the Dust Bowl of the 1930's. Now, soil erosion appears to be increasing again as we have made more rural land into cropland, particularly for corn, soybeans, and other row crops to meet the growing export demand. While about one-third of America's cropland is currently experiencing soil erosion from wind and water at rates which threaten the long-term productivity of the land, about 54 percent of all sheet and rill erosion and 89 percent of the excessive erosion of this type occurs on about 10 percent of the Nation's cropland (41 million acres). The condition of our grazing land has been improving steadily since the 1930's, but more than half is still in fair to poor condition. Responding to their own incentives, private landowners in many cases have introduced practices and improvements to control erosion.

Agriculture is by far the Nation's biggest user of water, and water is being use—and wasted—in greater amounts that ever. In some parts of the West and Great Plains, groundwater is being used to irrigate crops faster than it is being replenished. Damages from upstream flooding are expected to increase in the years immediately ahead, largely because people continue to build on land subject to flooding.

Federal Conservation Programs

Programs to deal with soil and water resource problems were begun by the Federal Government about 50 years ago. Research programs to focus on soil erosion began in the late 1920's, and soil conservation programs were begun in the Dust Bowl years of the 1930's. Since then many Federal, State, and local government agencies have carried out programs to protect, conserve, and improve soil and water resources, usually in cooperation with individual landowners.

Some 27 conservation programs, involving conservation research and education, technical assistance, cost-sharing and loans are administered by 8 agencies of the Department of Agriculture. Some of these programs, while popular with farmers and ranchers, do not clearly address the Nation's most critical soil and water resource problems. Further, after nearly half a century of Federal conservation assistance programs a substantial number of farmers have not applied needed conservation measures. Too much soil continues to erode at rates that threaten productivity and impair water quality. Too much water is not efficiently managed, resulting in a threat of water shortages. Too much land is subject to excessive flood damages.

Appraisal of Alternative "Futures"

The Appraisal examines the impact on available cropland through 2030 of several alternative projections of domestic and foreign demand for agricultural production, and alternative rates of growth in agricultural productivity. Under a number of projections of increased demand and growth in productivity, the existing farmland base can provide the necessary production by the year 2030 without significant real price increases or adverse impacts to the land. Under some of the more "extreme" projections with high projected demand and low growth in productivity out to 2030, additional cropland would be required. Furthermore, there could be significant increases in the cost of agricultural production as well as increases in cropland erosion.

The proposed program is not predicated on either the most optimistic or pessimistic assumption about the future. Instead it is designed to accommodate a wide range of uncertainty in future agricultural production possibilities.

The Appraisal recognizes that soil and water conservation management is needed to counteract adverse impacts on this Nation's soil and water resource base, especially if a "high" demand for agricultural products is projected over the next 50 years.

The Appraisal makes it clear that some changes in Federal soil and water conservation programs will be necessary to provide protection for the Nation's soil and water resources on non-federal land. Simply increasing Federal contributions to soil and water conservation is not the answer to our resource problems. Stewardship of the land is primarily the responsibility of the individual landowner. The marketplace generally determines what resources the individual will devote to the management of his land and water. The role of the Federal Government in promoting soil and water conservation is therefore subject to limitations imposed by economic conditions and the individual landowner's willingness to cooperate. The most important contribution that this Administration can make to the conservation effort is to redirect current conservation programs and develop fresh approaches to solving the resource problems that continue to threaten the long-term productivity of our soil, water, and related resources. The program effects this redirection and provides for these fresh approaches. It will be the new benchmark for budget proposals and planning of all conservation programs in the Department of Agriculture.

The Recommended Program

The recommended program includes the following key features:

1. National conservation priorities. The program for the first time sets clear national priorities to guide Federal conservation efforts. The top priorities are reducing soil erosion, conserving water and reducing upstream flood damages.

2. Development and promotion of cost-effective conservation measures. The program encourages development and adoption of conservation measures, such as conservation tillage and range management, that are most cost-effective in reducing erosion and solving other resource problems.

3. Targeting. The program calls for targeting an increased share of Department of Agriculture resources—people and dollars-to critical problem areas where the need for conservation is greatest. It also targets Department of Agriculture research and education efforts toward the solution of those soil and water problems that impair agricultural productivity and cause permanent damage to basic resources. Targeting will take no more than 25 percent of total conservation funds and will be phased-in over a five-year period, adding 5 percent a year.

4. Matching grants. The program provides matching grants to encourage local and state governments to participate more fully in planning and implementing conservation programs.

5. Conservation pilot projects. The program calls for undertaking pilot projects to test new conservation methods and incentives to help farmers and ranchers practice conservation effectively and at reasonable cost.

6. Intergovernmental cooperation. The program will aim for improved coordination among the various Federal, state, and local agencies with conservation responsibilities. It will foster closer cooperation and coordination within the Department of Agriculture itself and among the eight agencies of USDA with responsibilities for conservation programs.

These features and others are described and evaluated in detail in the BCA Program Report and Environmental Impact Statement. Since they make so many significant changes in previous Department of Agriculture conservation programs, the Department measured public reaction to them in 1980 and 1981. Nearly 83,000 people commented on the latest draft, including Members of Congress and the .Governors of 37 States, Puerto Rico, and Guam. More than half the respondents were farmers or ranchers. Comments received have been studied carefully and considered in preparing the final program document.

Budgeting Policy

It is my intention that the Department of Agriculture manage its soil and water conservation programs as efficiently as possible. This includes eliminating overlap among programs and reducing instances in which one program conflicts with the aims of another.

I anticipate that my future budget proposals will fall within the bounds of the recommended program. Funding for conservation programs, however, will necessarily be considered in each year's economic and fiscal context. The demands placed on our financial resources by other national goals and interests must also be weighed. Consideration of those competing demands each year could make it necessary for this Administration to propose a conservation program budget less than the proposed lower bound. I anticipate that State and local governments, as they assume more significant roles in conservation program design and management, will contribute a larger share of needed funds for conservation.


I believe the process introduced by the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977 is useful. The Appraisal and Program have been major steps in developing a sound planning process for the Department of Agriculture's soil and water conservation program. They provide a long-needed picture of the status of soil and water resources and the projected demands on those resources, and a realistic strategy for the Federal Government to follow in helping to manage, conserve, and improve those resources to meet national needs and goals. It is my belief that this strategy will result in a significant improvement in the effectiveness of USDA conservation programs.

I commend the Secretary of Agriculture for his Department's efforts in preparing the Appraisal and Program and for his responsiveness to the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act of 1977.

Note: This is the text of identical letters addressed to Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr., Speaker of the House of Representatives, and George Bush, President of the Senate.

Ronald Reagan, Letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, Together With a Policy Statement, on Soil and Water Conservation Programs Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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