All About Environmental Quality Incentive Program from USDA NRCS

NYFOA and NYTF recently sat down with the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to talk about the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) and the financial and management opportunities that EQIP can provide to forest owners and their properties.

“EQIP is a program offered through the USDA NRCS,” said Shanna Shaw, Area Resource Conservationist. “It’s considered to be a part of the Farm Bill that is authorized every five years. EQIP offers an array of options to landowners and farmers looking for financial assistance to do conservation work with their properties. There are various categories and funding opportunities available, but we’ll focus here on forest and habitat work.”

NRCS Area Biologist Mike Shaw added, “We can also pay for timber stand improvements that promote new growth. Selective harvesting of timber can open the woods up to more sunlight to get regeneration started with other species as well.” Timber thinning can be funded if it improves the overall health of the area. “If you’re looking to do a stewardship plan and it specifies that doing a thinning is needed because of a concern over degraded plant condition, or you’re trying to make sure you have a healthy forest that is disease resistant and things like that, there are funding opportunities,” said Shanna Shaw.

While EQIP has some specific target species of both fauna and flora, these conservation goals can often line up with other goals for landowners. “A lot depends on the goal of the participant and the specific goals they have for their property,” said Nicole Kubiczki, Resource Soil Scientist. “We can offer technical assistance at any point to help a landowner, both in guiding them and helping them achieve that financially.” Mike Shaw added, “Our young forest initiative is geared toward golden wing warblers, eastern cottontails, black-billed cuckoo, North American woodcock, and brown thrasher.” However, these species share habitat with many others, including game species. “You might not be interested in woodcock, but the same habitat will support deer, turkey, and grouse to name a few,” said Kubiczki. “We can marry the objectives of the agency with the objectives of the landowner, if someone wants to gain species for hunting versus others that NRCS might identify.”

EQIP isn’t just for managing habitat types. Using an energy audit from NYSERDA, for example, maple syrup producers can apply to replace equipment for efficiency purposes. “For people managing a sugarbush or working on maple production, there are things we can do for them with energy savings,” said Mike Shaw. “For example we helped replace a reverse osmosis system with a newer, more efficient system. The first season in use we saved one farm 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel. It’s not limited to that though. Evaporators, arches, it runs the whole gamut of stuff to help with. Another example is when I helped a farm with their vacuum system. We replaced it with a variable motor system that was more efficient.”

For those who want to pursue funding, the first step is contacting the nearest USDA service center in your area. “Contact your local rep for your county, and from there there’s a conversation to be had,” said Kubiczki. “NRCS will ask what your objectives are — for example, growing specific trees, controlling invasive species, managing a sugarbush. From there, NRCS needs to assess soils, streams, and other landscape features, not only geographically, but in terms of meeting the objectives. NRCS will go to the property, walk the site, and then suggest practices that would lend the landscape to meeting goals. There are a suite of practices that are combined to arrive at an objective. If there are any resource concerns for plant or animal habitat condition that isn’t ideal, we will go over ways to enhance that. From there, we or a forester can work with the landowner to write a conservation plan and then a contract.”

While some grassland and species-specific projects do require a certain amount of acreage, NRCS works with properties of all sizes. “Forestry projects have no size limits,” said Kubiczki. “Some projects have been as small as an acre.” That said, the program funding is competitive to receive. “Each part of the state gets a budget, and everyone in that area that applies competes against each other,” said Shanna Shaw. “It’s a competitive process with a ranking system based off questions answered about the property and its goals. The financial allotment given out is funded by starting at the top-ranked applicants and moving downward until the funding is gone for the year.”

For those working at NRCS, there are rewards beyond the conservation work that take place. “The feedback from landowners that we get is awesome and is what keeps us going,” said Kubiczki. “Seeing aspen regeneration after a clearing photo, getting video and photos from folks from their trail cams — a lot of the work done translates into wonderful memories. One applicant was so thrilled to take their grandson out and have a successful archery hunt, and they were so happy that it was in the area that we had helped them improve. We talk about the species and fauna and flora, but we also have to talk about the sense of pride in having an impact and getting to be outside.”

Shanna Shaw added that the USDA has many other opportunities besides EQIP for landowners. “Don’t think of USDA as being just for dairy or orchards or meat inspectors,” said Shaw. “From wetlands work to habitat growth to forestry or pollinator needs, we’re here to help. Start with your field office and we’ll hook you up to get your project going.”

Click here to find your nearest USDA service centerClick here to learn more about EQIP.

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