- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The Natural Resources Conservation Service is defending its use of three Ducks Unlimited employees in North Dakota, saying the partnership aids the agency, taxpayers and landowners.

The federal government’s main conservation agency has been criticized by the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. The group, which represents North Dakota wheat and barley farmers, said last week that the relationship between NRCS and Ducks Unlimited could hurt farmers’ and ranchers’ pocketbooks if the nonprofit gains undue influence over decisions regarding private land use.

Ducks Unlimited, which works to boost wetlands and waterfowl, provides three field biologist positions to help NRCS with two federal programs - the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP), NRCS told The Associated Press. Those three people make up fewer than 2 percent of the agency’s 200 office-level field staff in the state.

“Every dollar of federal funding for technical assistance work is matched by a dollar of DU funds,” the NRCS statement said. “This helps NRCS meet the large demand for conservation planning and project implementation.”

The agency also said Ducks Unlimited staff are supervised by NRCS officials and do not conduct wetland compliance checks. Producers who don’t comply with wetlands regulations can lose eligibility for federal farm programs.

Grain Growers Executive Director Dan Wogsland said he worries that Ducks Unlimited biologists might have “indirect influence” when questions of compliance arise.

“Farmers and ranchers deserve unbiased help and information from employees hired exclusively by the federal government and not by a political organization with an agenda,” he said.

Ducks Unlimited rejects the notion that it gains influence with NRCS, saying the field biologists are “not involved in any regulatory programs or policy development.”

Mary Podoll, NRCS state conservationist for North Dakota, said the agency has partnered with Ducks Unlimited for several years, and has similar agreements in other states. The relationship has not been questioned anywhere else, she said.

The NRCS in South Dakota in recent years has used private consultants to help with a massive backlog in certified wetland determinations that help landowners know which areas they can drain.

South Dakota state Resource Conservationist Gerald Jasmer said he did not know if any of those consultants are affiliated with Ducks Unlimited.

“Our only interest is that the data we are provided is accurate, complete and of sufficient quality to be used by our NRCS wetland specialists to make a high-quality certified wetland determination,” he said.

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