Prairie Pothole Wetlands Imperiled by Their Protectors
Four-State Evaluations Decry Faulty Wetland Calls, Mapping, Reviews and Training
Washington, DC — The federal program to protect one of the most important wetland regions in the world, home to more than half of North American migratory waterfowl, is itself plagued by potholes, according to government reports posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nearly two-thirds of the wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region composed of the states of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have already been drained or altered for agricultural use.
To reverse this trend, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a $35 million four-state initiative. But this program gets failing marks in recent internal reviews. One, entitled “Final Oversight and Evaluation Report: North Central Wetlands Conservation Initiative (NCWCI) – Combined Report Spring 2012” dated March 18, 2013, found –
- “Commonly, the reviewer did not agree with certified wetland determinations. It was apparent that quality assurance and oversight was occurring minimally (3 out of 4 states)”;
- Mapping, sampling and other wetlands identification processes are deficient. In addition, “The methods currently utilized for offsite determinations are inadequate.” Also “Agency experts are not consistently applying the approved protocols when conducting onsite determinations”; and
- “Agency experts have not consistently received adequate training as required. Inadequate training was found in 2 out of the 4 states with a combined success rate of 19.5%.”
“America’s Prairie Pothole wetlands are dying the death of a thousand cuts,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that one evaluation warns that these conditions place “the agency at risk of the loss of confidence from the wetland conservation community, the Administration and Congress.” “These reports suggest that the government program chartered to save Prairie Pothole wetlands is doing the opposite,” Ruch added.
Individual reports from 2013 and 2014 on each of the four Prairie Pothole states reveal that –
- In Minnesota, “The review finds that the correct wetland identification decisions (vegetation, soils and hydrology) are not being rendered accurately and that proper wetland conservation labels are not being made according to policy. The inconsistencies fall outside of acceptable expectations;”
- In South Dakota, “During the interview process it was discovered that wetland certification production goals had unrealistically been set at approximately 200 per year for wetland specialists in one area. This could result in the avoidance of adverse decisions.” In addition, the state has a revolving-door problem with retired NRCS employees acting as “consultants” to farmers. In the Comments section of the state report “One employee expressed it was ‘uncomfortable’ trying to do quality assurance because the Consultant used to be the DC [District Conservationist] in that office;” and
- In Iowa, “No Quality Assurance Plan was provided from either the State Office or the area offices. There is currently no policy pertaining to this issue, however it is still a ‘good idea’ to have one…”
“Terms like ‘absence of quality assurance’ are euphemisms for saying the resource is being sold out,” added Ruch, who used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain versions of the reviews that are heavily redacted to shield what NRCS calls “pre-decisional” information – a claim PEER is appealing. “These redactions make it impossible to tell whether the agency is actually doing anything to fix what is broken. Typically, this much blacked out space in official reports is a bureaucratic signal that problems persist.”
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