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Illinois Department of Natural Resources
February 2021
February 1, 2021
Laura Jackson, a NGRREC Land Conservation Specialist stationed out of Murphysboro, monitors a 55 acre Wetland Reserve Easement in Union County. Jackson has been a Specialist since July 2017.

Land Conservation Specialists Assist Landowners Navigate Farm Bill Conservation Programs

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By Justin J. Shew

Since 2010 Lewis and Clark Community College’s National Great Rivers Research and Education Center (L&C/NGRREC) has been assisting the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with Illinois private lands conservation programs associated with the federal Farm Bill. In 2013 a unique NGRREC position, titled Land Conservation Specialist (LCS; Specialist here after), was created that placed staff in USDA Service Centers throughout the state of Illinois. As technical partners, NGRREC’s Specialists fulfill a unique role for NRCS providing ecological technical assistance to both private landowners and NRCS staff. Land Conservation Specialists often have specific expertise in forestry, ecological restoration, wildlife ecology, botany, and/or habitat management. The ever expanding LCS team is currently made up of Robin Ingersoll (East Alton), Laura Jackson (Murphysboro), Jacob Williams (Macomb), Levi Reed (Greeneville), Dalton Kerans (Virginia) and is managed by Justin Shew from the NGRREC Field Station (East Alton), who has also published applied research directly linked to the program (Outdoor Illinois Journal August 2020).

A grassland with many yellow wildflowers scatter throughout. In the distance is a forest edge below a cloudy summer sky.
Conservation Reserve Program pollinator habitat, or Conservation Practice 42 (CP42) in CRP terminology. Photo taken in June during a Land Conservation Specialist visit with a Fayette County landowner concerned with giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) competition in their CRP field. Photo by Natalie Misner (former LCS).

Land Conservation Specialists Responsibilities

Specialists cover a multi-county area surrounding their duty station and provide various forms of boots-on-the-ground conservation support to NRCS ranging from landowner outreach, practice compliance evaluation, prescribed fire planning, and conservation easement monitoring. In addition to boots-on-the-ground support, Specialists provide greatly needed administrative support to NRCS and to landowners trying to navigate various Farm Bill conservation programs. Paperwork and administrative support, although not as glamorous as meeting with a landowner in the field to discuss management options, is an essential conservation process and is directly connected to much of the fieldwork conducted by the Specialists. Land Conservation Specialists provide support to two major programs, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) program that provide a multitude of conservation benefits including, but not limited to, improving water quality, reducing erosion, flood abatement, and creating both ephemeral and permanent wildlife habitat (i.e. CRP and WRE, respecitvely). The Specialists further explain their role in a recorded NGRREC Neighbor Nights presentation.

Role in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

A brown, black, and white bobwhite quail perches atop a fence post. Trees and a blue sky is in the background.
Wetland Reserve Easements often create habitat for both wetland and upland species, such as northern bobwhite (pictured here). Bobwhite quail are a popular upland game species and an Illinois Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). Photo by Robin Ingersoll.

The Conservation Reserve Program, administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), is the most popular private lands conservation program in the United States with 20,770,138 active acres enrolled into the program and 280,413 acres enrolled in Illinois (USDA-CRP November Summary 2020). If you combined all the CRP acres in the United States this would equal 56 percent of the land area of Illinois! Marginal farming ground is taken out of production and planted to some form of conservation cover and annual economic incentives are provided to the landowner in 10- to 15-year contracts—an average $83.01/acre annual rental rate across all CRP for landowners; USDA-CRP November Summary 2020). Often management is required mid-way on these contracts to improve early successional habitat and plant diversity for wildlife such as northern bobwhite quail. Specialists complete a wide arrange of work products and tasks associated with CRP ranging from writing prescribed burn plans to assessing re-enrollment potential of existing contracts into the program after a contract expires. Specialists are often the first people to meet with landowners in person to discuss any resources concerns with their CRP such as pollinator establishment, management options, and noxious weed issues.

A field of soybeans with trees in the background and a cloudy summer sky. A dirt road runs along the right side of the field. A gray car is parked, and it's drivers side door is open.
Documented agricultural encouragement onto a Mississippi floodplain Wetland Reserve Easement in Randolph County (note: soybeans surrounding the easement boundary marker in center). Simply putting a “set of eyes” on an easement for annual monitoring is a valuable service provided by NGRREC’s Land Conservation Specialists who also facilitate conservation discussions between landowners and NRCS. Photo by Justin Shew.

Role in the Wetland Reserve Easement (WRE) Program

The Wetland Reserve Easement program is administratively led by NRCS, through its Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and seeks to put land into permanent conservation easements owned by the federal government. As of 2019 there are 62,0889 acres enrolled into this program nationally with 3,143 acres within the state of Illinois (NRCS-ACEP 2019). These easements are often located in floodplains where farming can be difficult and they reduce flood risk in the areas as well as provide numerous wildlife benefits to both wetland and upland species, with particular emphasis on migratory waterfowl. Easement monitoring is required annually, when accessible, and since 2018 Illinois NRCS has utilized its technical partners such as NGRREC’s Specialists to monitor easements once a year. Specialists often walk the easements, or sometimes boat, to assess wetland function and the condition of water control structures. They are noting any compliance issues, vegetation concerns, and wildlife use during their monitoring visits. Specialists often serve as a point-of-contact for landowners and NRCS for associated easements and CRP fields because they have often visited these sites multiple times and have developed relationships with both parties to improve the overall customer service provided by NRCS.

One-on-one Outreach and Landowner Relationship Building

Landowner outreach and relationship building can be one of the most rewarding aspects of a NGRREC’s Land Conservation Specialist job. NRCS is often busy with many administrative responsibilities and are more trained in aspects of soil science. Specialists provide support to landowners by helping them navigate the CRP and WRE processes and can often direct landowners to appropriate NRCS personnel if they are unable to answer landowners’ questions. Although many workshops and field days exist throughout the state of Illinois to improve education on practices and programs, one-on-one landowner support remains a key service provided by NGRREC Specialists.

Further Information

Readers needing assistance with Farm Bill conservation programs are encouraged to reach out to their local NRCS office or their area NGRREC Land Conservation Specialist or similar technical partner for further information (partner map). Specialist email contact information can be found at this link. Readers interested in learning more about the program and about the training/skill qualities often sought in a Land Conservation Specialist are welcome to contact Justin Shew (jshew@lc.edu).

Former NGRREC Land Conservation Specialist, Natalie Misner, stumbles upon a river otter family while monitoring a NRCS Wetland Reserve Easement in Fayette County Illinois. Video by Natalie Misner.

Justin J. Shew is the Conservation Program Manager at NGRREC and has specific interests in wildlife and applied ecology research as it relates to state and federal conservation programs. He conducted his most recent graduate work through Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory on grassland bird response to policy-based management and multi-scale factors.

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