Have the National Resources Inventories advanced conservation policy?

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Background. Over the last three decades, the USDA's conservation policy has changed dramatically. Not only has the number of programs multiplied and the scope of issues expanded, but a once-casual link between commodity programs and conservation activities has been formalized. One reason for the changes may have been an effort within the USDA's conservation agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to collect information on natural resource conditions through the National Resources Inventories (NRIs). In the 1970s, Congress mandated the NRIs and also a national agricultural-conservation appraisal and the development of a national program to devise conservation-policy recommendations. Together these mandates constituted the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA) appraisal process. The NRIs have been produced on a huge scale and through great effort, and they have evolved successfully over time. Recently formed Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) offered another opportunity to use the NRIs. But their integration into policy has been neither consistent nor smooth -- nor, heretofore, well understood.

Question. Have the National Resources Inventories advanced conservation policy?

Methods. I followed three policy layers over the last thirty-five years: the intra-agency dynamic that produced informational products; the USDA conservation-program structure, and the federal legislative branch in its policy-making dimension. In all, I interviewed over 40 experts, looked through nearly 800 speeches, reviewed 47 Congressional hearings, analyzed dozens of databases, and relied on hundreds of internal documents.

Conclusion. Yes, the National Resources Inventories have advanced conservation policy. However, NRI influence has been directly unambiguous only once. NRI influence has mostly been through the RCA, and it has been greatest when support has been high at both agency and USDA levels, when participation from constituent USDA agencies and other federal agencies has been enthusiastic, when willingness to restructure programs according to actual findings has been ascendent, and when Congress members have been hearing about NRI results from many sources.