Wetland compliance reforms proposed in new bill from Rounds, Hoeven

U.S. Sens. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and John Hoeven (R-ND) have offered legislation that would require reforms for wetlands compliance rules under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to improve specific protections for landowners.

“Landowners in South Dakota, and across the country, increasingly battle the NRCS on wetland determinations,” said Sen. Rounds on Sept. 28. “Farmers and ranchers already have to battle the wind, rain, snow and sun; they shouldn’t have to battle their government, too.”

On Sept. 22, Sen. Rounds sponsored the NRCS Wetland Compliance and Appeals Reform Act, S. 4931, with Sen. Hoeven signing on as the lead original cosponsor, to protect the private property rights of farmers, ranchers and landowners, according to a bill summary provided by the lawmakers.

“South Dakota’s farmers, ranchers and landowners know their land better than anyone else,” Sen. Rounds said. “They are conservationists by nature and want their land to be productive for future generations. They don’t need the heavy hand of government interfering with their ability to manage the land they live and work on.”

For years, he pointed out, landowners have faced “arbitrary, punitive penalties” by the NRCS, which has made “unfounded wetland determinations and levied large and unfair monetary fines” that leave landowners little or no recourse. 

“The reforms I have introduced modify some of the NRCS’s compliance rules in a manner that works for landowners, gives farmers and ranchers more control over their land and removes unnecessary, often unfair, barriers and penalties,” said Sen. Rounds.

If enacted, S. 4931 would allow the NRCS to enter only termed easement agreements; prevent certain compliance penalties for newly determined wetlands from being imposed retroactively; and place the burden of proof on the NRCS to prove a violation, the summary says.

Additionally, the bill would block interim rulemakings and require the NRCS to go through a notice and comment rulemaking for conservation compliance regulations, states the summary, and would reform the agency’s appeals process to ensure farmers and landowners are treated fairly.

“North Dakota farmers and ranchers take care of their land better than anyone else,” said Sen. Hoeven. “This legislation is about ensuring USDA NRCS policies are farmer-friendly and respect property rights.” 

Sen. Hoeven added that as lawmakers start working on the next farm bill, “we will continue to prioritize efforts to reduce bureaucratic overreach and red tape for landowners.”