Need for multiple permits derails some conservation projects
By WES SANDER
SACRAMENTO -- A group of public and private agriculture stakeholders is exploring ways of streamlining the permitting process for landowners participating in conservation programs.
The California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment cites a 2007 survey that found two-thirds of conservation workers who engage landowners in conservation projects had scaled back, canceled or avoided projects that require permitting.
Respondents criticized federal, state and local agencies for treating projects intended to benefit the environment no differently from commercial development projects. That discourages many landowners who are trying to do the right thing, said Katy Mamen, a project manager with CRAE.
"One of the problems that needs to be addressed is the multiple permits that these landowners need," Mamen said. "There are so many great projects that are just not happening."
Mamen described CRAE's efforts at a November meeting of the state Board of Food and Agriculture. Board member Marvin Meyers, a San Joaquin Valley farmer, said the permitting process "90 percent of the time is a nightmare."
"Growers would definitely back something like this," Meyers said.
While conservation programs -- like those conducted through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service -- involve federal cost-sharing, the responsibility for permitting rests with the landowner.
The 2007 survey, co-authored by the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition, obtained responses from conservationists with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, regional conservation-district directors and staff members with nonprofit groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
More than half said permitting difficulties had caused frustrations to landowners and increased projects' cost and completion time. Nearly two-thirds reported project delays, and nearly half reported increases in staff time to help landowners deal with difficulties. Nearly a third said they had discouraged landowners from taking on projects that require permitting.
CRAE -- a collection of environmental and commodity groups and regulatory agencies -- has considered the concept of a regulatory ombudsman, envisioned as a person or office tasked with smoothing the permitting path.
That's an idea that tops the list for stakeholders in the state's ongoing Agricultural Vision project, which seeks to create a guiding document for agriculture policy.
"We have a lot of stories about growers told to do one thing by one agency, and another way by another agency," said Ed Thompson, state director of American Farmland Trust, which the state contracted to conduct the Ag Vision process. "There's a great deal of frustration about this."
Luana Kiger, outreach coordinator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said delays in permitting can heavily impact projects.
Any conservation project requires a landowner's investment, and delayed permitting can often cause a landowner to rethink the project's worth, Kiger said.
"I have heard of people who have said it's not worth it, I'm not going to do it," Kiger said.
"Time can be the enemy on restoration projects. If the landowner has money to invest now, it needs to be done now."