Conservation in the United States

The United States


Congress authorized the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) in the 1996 farm bill, also know as the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act, but funding expanded dramatically after the 2002 farm bill, or Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. In 2014, Congress merged WHIP with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), mandating that 5 percent of EQIP funds be used for wildlife habitat related projects.

WHIP was managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and provided money and technical assistance to landowners developing a wide variety of habitats for fish and wildlife, including threatened and endangered species. Landowners entered into multi-year contracts to receive WHIP payments. WHIP payments are still being made to producers with active contracts, but are declining rapidly after the EQIP merger.

About the Data

WHIP’s data structure and displays in EWG’s Conservation Database are exactly the same as those for EQIP. The Database reports payments made to program participants in the fiscal year a practice was implemented to earn a payment.

As with EQIP, the payment data in the database will not match funding information provided by NRCS or the levels authorized by Congress in a particular fiscal year for two reasons. First, NRCS reports “obligations,” not payments made in a fiscal year. When a producer signs an EQIP contract, NRCS sets aside or “obligates” all of the money needed for payments over the length of the contract. Obligations are not the same as the actual payments made to a producer. Second, some portion of WHIP funding is used to pay for the technical help producers need to implement the funded practices. That funding goes to NRCS staff or private sector consultants, not to the producer. Our data only reports payments made directly to producers.

Payments made to producers are determined by a “payment rate” that is specific to each eligible conservation practice. This direct connection between payments and practices simplified the organization of the WHIP data, despite the large amount of information involved.

We used the following data, secured through Freedom of Information Act requests, to structure the WHIP data presented in the database:

  • Contract ID
  • Cost-share earned by contract
  • Cost-share earned by practice
  • NRCS practice code and name
  • County
  • Fiscal year during which cost-share payment was made

We only included data from contract records with dates at which the implementation of the specified practices were certified and the status of the contracts were either active or completed. Individual practices – contract items – were included only if the records included dates certified, the amounts of payment earned and practice descriptions. We also only included data from contracts with a total payment of $1,000 or more. The number of contracts and practices that didn’t meet these criteria were a tiny fraction of total contracts and total spending.

EWG Interpretations

In most cases, the database simply presents the data as we received them from NRCS. In two cases, we provide the user with interpretations of the data that we hope make the data more meaningful.

Practice Class, Suite and Type

We organized the individual conservation practices funded through WHIP into a taxonomy of nested categories to make it easier for database users to use the data and drill down to their preferred level of detail.

The highest overarching category is the Practice Class. All practices, such as prescribed burning or upland habitat management, that improve the management of habitat on a farm or ranch are included in the Farm, Ranch and Land Management Practice Suite. Practices that pay farmers for building a structure like a wildlife watering facility are included in the Structures, Equipment and Facilities Practice Class.

Searching by Practice Suite and Type provides more specific information on the money spent in those categories, and ultimately on one of the individual practices for which payments have been made. This practice taxonomy was created solely by EWG using practice descriptions and job sheets available on the NRCS website.

Resource Concerns and Causes of Impairment

EWG analyzed the payment and practice data to estimate what environmental outcomes the program sought. NRCS maintains a list of so-called “resource concerns” that include broad categories of natural resource and environmental issues such as Fish and Wildlife, Water, and Air Quality. NRCS also specifies dozens of specific causes for the impairment of resources, such as Fish and Wildlife – Inadequate Habitat – Cover/Shelter, and Water Quality – Nutrients in Surface Water or Air Quality – Emissions of Greenhouse Gases. The definition of resource concerns and causes have changed over time and can differ slightly between programs.

NRCS uses the Conservation Practice Physical Effects (CPPE) matrix to evaluate which particular practices affect resource concerns and causes. A practice is given a score ranging from -5 to +5 for each resource concern and cause NRCS concludes that it affects. A negative score means the practice has a harmful effect on that particular resource concern or cause. A positive score means the practice helps improve the condition of a particular resource by lessening one or more causes of impairment. A single practice often improves more than one resource concern and addresses multiple causes of impairment.

EWG used the CPPE scores and practice information to allocate payments to each resource concern and cause as an indication of the environmental outcomes WHIP has been addressing. We assembled all CPPE scores for all practices in a WHIP contract. Total payments to that contract were then allocated to each resource concern and cause based on the percentage of total contract CPPE scores contributed by each resource concern or cause.

A simple example: The practices in an WHIP contract earned a total of 10 CPPE points. Five of those points were for improving Fish and Wildlife habitat and the other five were for improving Water Quality. The total payments made for all practices in that contract were $5,000. EWG then allocated $2,500 to Fish and Wildlife Habitat and $2,500 to Air Quality.



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