Oregon landowner finds ‘Catch 22’ in federal conservation program

Oregon landowner Bob Lamb faces reduced conservation enhancement payments due to a “Catch 22” in contract language.

MONMOUTH, Ore. – When Bob Lamb talks about the conservation program he implemented on his property, he does so with reverence. The work, he said — planting 25,000 trees, improving water quality in the Little Luckiamute River, seeing lamprey return to spawn, learning of the complicated relationship of plant and soil — was about more than himself and his time.

It wasn’t about the money, either, although he welcomed the $220 per acre paid him annually under the Oregon Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) administered by the state and the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.

That’s why it’s so demoralizing to learn, as Lamb renewed the CREP agreement for another 15 years, that he will be paid a lower rate per acre. The problem involves state and federal interpretation of the program contract and, as he described it, “A Catch 22 that said you cannot get there from here.”

He estimated the reduced payments will cost him about $100,000 over the life of the renewed agreement. He didn’t have much choice: “You either take what they give you or you get nothing,” he said.

Lamb wants to alert other landowners to the situation, and hopes the FSA will work to solve the problem. The local FSA conservation program specialist working with Lamb said she shares his frustration but isn’t sure there’s any recourse.

Lamb was among the first in the Willamette Valley to sign up when the program began 15 years ago as a joint venture of the state and feds. The program is intended to improve streamside areas in ag land, helping fish, wildlife and water quality. Landowners receive rental payments for carrying out conservation measures.

In his case, Lamb essentially was paid to lease FSA 48 acres of his land flanking the Little Luckiamute. He agreed not to cultivate within 180 feet of either bank. He agreed to plant thousands of Douglas fir, Western red cedar and Willamette Valley Ponderosa pine.

He also agreed not to exercise his full state water right, leaving in the stream the amount that would have been used to irrigate the land involved in the CREP agreement. In return, Lamb and his wife, Jane, were paid a higher CREP rate for giving up production on irrigated land. They had to show they’d irrigated in at least two of the past five years.

The Lambs considered the program carefully.

“We talked at length with the FSA people,” Bob Lamb said. “We said, all right, we believe this is a program in our best interests in terms of improving water quality and fish habitat, and it would not be an economic burden for us to do so.”

They fully embraced the work, planting trees in a precise 10-foot by 10-foot grid on both sides of the river and thrilling over the years to see wildlife return, including spawning lamprey.

“You notice this is a program that is kind of attached to you; it’s not something you lightly do or don’t do,” Bob Lamb said. “You have a serious interest in the resource that is there on the ground. I’m talking blood, sweat and tears.”

Then it came time to renew this fall. The national FSA office, reviewing Lamb’s original contract, noted the requirement that he had to show he’d irrigated in at least two of the previous five years in order to get the higher rate. But during the 15 years of the first contract, of course, he’d given up a portion of his state water right and hadn’t irrigated the land contained in the CREP. By definition, it was no longer irrigated land and didn’t warrant the higher rate, the national FSA office decided.

Under the renewed contract, Lamb will be paid $123 an acre. He said the rate paid for irrigated land was scheduled to increase to about $265 an acre. Over the 15-year contract, the difference amounts to about $100,000, he said.

He isn’t interested in a lawsuit to resolve the issue. “I don’t have enough energy in my soul,” he said.

Lamb was a federal man himself, working over the years as a meteorologist, fire weather forecaster and power planner with the National Weather Service, U.S. Forest Service and Bonneville Power Administration before retiring to raise registered cattle along the Luckiamute. He knows the inertia that stalls bureaucracies.

“In order to fix that, someone has to take some action,” he said.

Phil Ward, executive director of the Oregon FSA office, said his office is working on the problem.

“We are very much aware of Mr. Lambs’ concerns and are actively working with our National Office to reach a positive resolution to this situation,” he said.

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