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Competency Area 9: Conservation Planning AEM

PO 88. Explain the uses of the following USDA NRCS references:

  1. Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG)
  2. National Handbook of Conservation Practices (NHCP)
  3. National Planning Procedures Handbook (NPPH)
  4. Guide to Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM)

Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG)

The Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG) is the primary technical reference for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It is also the umbrella document for NRCS Technical Releases and References. The FOTG is available on-line and is known there as the electronic FOTG or eFOTG. It is divided into five sections:

  • Section I – General Resource References

Section I contains general state maps, descriptions of Major Land Resource Areas, watershed information, and links to NRCS reference manuals and handbooks. Section I contains links to researchers, universities, and cooperating agencies. Section I also contains conservation practice costs, natural resource related laws and regulations, cultural resources, and information about protected plant and animal species.

  • Section II – Natural Resources Information

Section II contains detailed information about soil, water, air, plant, and animal resources. NRCS Soil Surveys, Hydric Soils Interpretations, Ecological Site Descriptions, Forage Suitability Groups, Cropland Production Tables, Wildlife Habitat Evaluation Guides, Water Quality Guides, and other related information can be found in this section as it becomes available.

  • Section III – Resource Management Systems and Quality Criteria

Section III contains detailed information about NRCS Quality Criteria, which establish standards for resource conditions that help provide sustained use. It also provides guidance for the development of conservation management systems (CMS).

  • Section IV – Practice Standards and Specifications

Section IV contains the NRCS Conservation Practice standards, specifications, guidelines, statements of work, and job sheets. Practice standards define the practice and where it applies. Practice specifications are detailed requirements for installing the practice in the state.

  • Section V – Conservation Effects

Section V provides background information on how conservation practices affect each identified resource concerns in the state.

National Handbook of Conservation Practices (NHCP)

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is the lead USDA agency for providing conservation technical assistance and planning on privately owned lands. The National Handbook of Conservation Practices (NHCP) establishes national standards for conservation practices commonly used to address natural resource concerns and opportunities. Each NRCS State office localizes the Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG) to its geographic area and establishes quality requirements for applying conservation practices within its area of responsibility. Revised local practice standards are to be equal to or more rigorous than the national standard. Conservation practice standards are in section IV of the FOTG. The NHCP not only houses the current national conservation practice standards but also provides guidance and direction on maintaining conservation practice standards, offers several ways for obtaining the standards, and encourages involvement in the process of developing new or revising current standards.

National conservation practice standards should NOT be used to plan, design, or install a conservation practice or system of practices. The national practice standards are reviewed and adapted for each state to meet local conditions. Use the standard developed by the state in which you are working to ensure that you meet all state and local criteria which may be more restrictive than the criteria found in the national version of the practice standard. In addition, each state determines which National conservation practice standards are applicable in their state. States add the technical detail needed to effectively use the standards at the field office level, and issue them as state conservation practice standards. New or revised state practice standards are posted to the Federal Register for review and comment by the public for a minimum of 30 days. State conservation practice standards may be found in Section IV of the Field Office Technical Guide (FOTG). The national NHCP web site also contains the National NHCP Notices; conservation practice job sheets, statements of work, information sheets, and other references.

Conservation practice standards in the NHCP evolved in accordance with advancement in farming and ranching techniques used throughout the world and with changes in technology as documented by research, conservation field trials, and accumulated experience. Practice standards need to be reviewed and maintained continuously to stay current with rapid changes in technology and to ensure that they address multiple resources. Reviews ensure that standards:

  • Provide timely incorporation of new technologies.
  • Address multiple resource concerns.
  • Are consistent in format and content.
  • Enhance interagency cooperation with regard to development of standards.
  • Account for the varied conservation activities expected of NRCS in the future.

National policy and the practice standards are developed for the protection of the landowner, conservation contractors, Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) employees, and NRCS employees. When a practice is installed according to criteria specified in the practice standard and the plans and specifications:

  • The landowner receives a conservation product that solves the apparent resource problem.
  • The contractor understands his/her responsibility in providing a quality job on the ground and is not required to warranty a product beyond the requirements of the standard.
  • The NRCS is protected by being assured that its employees are working within the scope of their employment.

The following definitions help to clarify the different documents that are found in the NHCP or Section IV of the FOTG.

  • Conservation Practice Standards

A statement of acceptable quality or technical excellence in terms of both form and function (performance), usually expressed in terms of limits; i.e., minimum or maximum. The conservation practice standard contains information on why and where the practice is applied, and sets forth the minimum quality criteria that must be met during the application of that practice in order for it to achieve its intended purpose(s).

  • Conservation Practice Specification

An explicit set of requirements to be satisfied by a material, product, system, or service, such as construction. It also identifies the methods for determining whether each of the requirements is satisfied.

  • Conservation Practice Information Sheets

The conservation practice information sheet contains a photograph of the installed practice, plus a definition or description of the practice, where it is commonly used and a brief description of the conservation effects of this practice when it is properly applied.

  • Conservation Practice Job Sheets

The conservation practice job sheets provide detailed guidance on the application of the practice, and contain worksheets that can be used to document the practice plan and design for a specific site.

  • Statements of Work

The Statements of Work outline deliverables for all conservation practices in the National Handbook of Conservation Practices (NHCP), as well as for comprehensive nutrient management plan development, conservation planning, and cultural resources compliance activities.

National Planning Procedures Handbook (NPPH)

(also see PO 87 – Understand the NRCS 9-Step Planning Process and other State planning tools)

The purpose of this handbook is to provide guidance on the planning process the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) uses to help develop, implement, and evaluate conservation plans for individuals, and area wide conservation plans or assessments for groups. NRCS provides conservation planning and technical assistance to clients (individuals, groups, and units of government). These clients develop and implement plans to protect, conserve, and enhance natural resources (soil, water, air, plants, and animals) within their social and economic interests.

In 1947, Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of soil conservation and first Chief of the Soil Conservation Service (now the NRCS) identified the principles of conservation planning in his text, "Elements of Soil Conservation". According to Bennett, an effective conservation planner must adhere to the following principles:

  • Consider the needs and capabilities of each acre within the plan
  • Consider the farmer's facilities, machinery, and economic situation
  • Incorporate the farmer's willingness to try new practices
  • Consider the land's relationship to the entire farm, ranch, or watershed
  • Ensure the conservationist's presence out on the land

The NPPH reaffirms these principles throughout the planning process for all types of land uses.

Planning involves more than considering individual resources. It focuses on the natural systems and ecological processes that sustain the resources. The planner strives to balance natural resource issues with economic and social needs through the development of conservation management systems (CMS). The conservation planning process helps the planner and client accomplish the following:

  • Help protect, conserve, and enhance natural resources.
  • Design alternatives that meet local resource quality criteria for identified resource issues.
  • Include the consideration of human concerns toward achieving sustainable agriculture.
  • Consider the effects of planned actions on interrelated geographical areas (i.e., looking off-site, beyond the planning unit boundary).
  • Consider and explain the interaction between biological communities and society.
  • Focus on ecological principles.
  • Consider the effects and interactions of planned systems and practices on the natural resources, as well as economic and social considerations.
  • Assist with development of plans, regardless of scale, which will help achieve the client's and society's objectives.
  • Identify where knowledge, science, and technology need to be advanced.

The planning process is used to assist clients in developing conservation plans for individuals, or area wide conservation plans or assessments for groups within watersheds or other defined areas. The process thus establishes a framework for planning and applying conservation systems on individual land units, as well as multiple ownerships. It also provides opportunities for input by stakeholders during development of area wide conservation plans or assessments.

Planning is complex and dynamic. Successful planning requires not only a high level of knowledge, skills, and abilities on the part of the planner, but also the exercise of professional judgment. To gain or maintain the knowledge, skills, and abilities, this handbook can be used as a training tool by less experienced planners and as a reference tool by experienced planners.

The United States Department of Agriculture - Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) developed the 9-Step Conservation Planning Process that enables the agency assist Tribal governments, farmers, ranchers, and other landowners in the conservation planning decision making process. The process establishes a framework for planning and applying conservation practices/systems which will facilitate and encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between people and their environment (see NEPA).

As presented in NRCS policy, the objective of conservation planning is to help each client attain sustainable use and sound management (prevent degradation) of soil, water, air, plant, and animal (SWAPA) resources while also including consideration and strategies in meeting human, social, and economic needs (SWAPA+H).

The NRCS-National Planning Procedures Handbook (NPPH) provides procedures and guidance on implementing the conservation planning policy. In New York State, the State Soil and Water Conservation Committee developed the "Agriculture Environmental Management System" (AEM).

AEM is a voluntary, incentive-based program that helps farmers make common-sense, cost-effective and science-based decisions to help meet business objectives while protecting and conserving the State's natural resources. Farmers work with local AEM resource professionals to develop comprehensive farm plans using a tiered process. 

Guide to Agricultural Environmental Management (AEM)

(also see PO 87 – AEM Tier planning process)

In New York State, the State Soil and Water Conservation Committee developed the "Agriculture Environmental Management System" (AEM). AEM is a voluntary, incentive-based program that helps farmers make common-sense, cost-effective and science-based decisions to help meet business objectives while protecting and conserving the State's natural resources.


The NRCS-AEM strategy is designed to facilitate the development of comprehensive tactical plans based upon the inputs and outputs of the planning process in helping to identify and systematically treat the resource concerns and opportunities on the farm.