Staffing shortage puts conservation on hold

Local farmers making structural improvements to their operations with federal funds are finding themselves on a waiting list.

Kurt Halfmann, Natural Resource Conservation Service district conservationist, said there are significant delays in the approval process.

He said 21 producers have completed applications to the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) and 14 more applications are waiting for one portion of the environmental evaluation.

“The designs are done but we haven’t gotten a cultural resource response yet,” Halfmann told the county’s Land Management Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Feb. 16.

Until the cultural review is completed, a project stays at a lower funding priority under the rules of the federal EQIP program.

These projects include cropland improvements to prevent soil erosion and improve water quality or better ways to handle manure waste.

“It (delays in the cultural review) means projects that are designed and ready to go, can’t go,” explained Doug Bos, assistant director with the county Land Management Office.

Currently, the State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO) completes the cultural reviews according to the federal preservation standards.

SHPO consults with federal and state government agencies to identify historic properties and to advise how to reduce or mitigate harm to any areas of historical significance.

Since October, SHPO has been assisting NRCS to complete the cultural review process as they seek to replace their archeologist, who left the position in June. Prior to the NRCS archeologist’s departure, culture reviews would take only days to complete, Halfmann said.

Now that process is taking much longer.

“It is not our intention to stop projects,” said Sarah Beimers, manager of SHPO’s government programs and compliance department. “We are trying to help them (NRCS) as much as possible.”

Since Oct. 1, Beimers’ three-person office has reviewed 800 NRCS requests including the 21 from Rock County. The number is much larger than the 100 state NRCS officials had anticipated, she said.

SHPO reviews 3,500 projects annually.

“We give our best opinion based on the absence or presence of archeological resources,” Beimers said.

A standard form letter is sent to agencies if her department cannot make a formal cultural determination on a specific project. That letter asks for additional details or for a walkover to be done on the property.

As state NRCS officials work to fill the archeologist position, ideas are being sought as to how to improve the NRCS review process, Beimers said.

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