New conservation planning tool allows users to evaluate tailored cost-benefit tradeoffs

Young woman with long curly hair sitting at computer
Emma Bravard, a research scientst at Iowa State, views a watershed map generated in the new Financial and Nutrient Reduction Tool (FiNRT), part of the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework.

AMES, Iowa — Conservation planning is entering a new era of precision problem-solving with the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF), and its just-released Financial and Nutrient Reduction Tool (FiNRT).

“ACPF itself is a non-prescriptive conservation planning framework supported by high-resolution geospatial data and an ArcGIS toolbox,” said Emily Zimmerman, assistant professor in Iowa State’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. “These elements are used to allow conservation planners and landowners to identify and evaluate conservation opportunities at different scales, from the field to the watershed.”

“With the recent addition of the ACPF-compatible FiNRT (pronounced fine-art) toolbox that incorporates financial information with environmental benefits, ACPF will be of even greater interest to stakeholders looking for information on the tradeoffs of implementing best management practices,” she said.

Outputs for FiNRT can focus on the conservation practice, field or watershed level to provide:

  • direct costs and opportunity costs based on the best management practice and area treated;
  • current nitrate N loads and load reduction potential from implementing best management practices; and
  • cost efficiency (cost per pound of N reduced) for different practices.

Users can also download demonstration watersheds to try the tool.

“FiNRT offers the ability to estimate the on-the-ground costs and nitrate-reduction outcomes from ACPF-generated scenarios,” said John Tyndall, professor of natural resource economics in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and the leading faculty member on the new financial toolbox. “Conservation professionals and the landowners they work with can use the tool to estimate the direct and indirect costs associated with conservation objectives using data from their own watershed or farm. That includes the opportunity costs of taking land out of production. We think having this kind of tailored, pragmatic information can reduce the uncertainty farmers cite as a main obstacle to implementing conservation practices.”   

FiNRT was introduced in a recent article in the “Journal of Environmental Quality,” authored by Emma Bravard, a research scientist at Iowa State, Zimmerman, Tyndall and David James, now retired from the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Other partners on FiNRT included the ACPF National Hub hosted by the Iowa Water Center at Iowa State, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin.

Bravard, who worked on development of FiNRT for her master’s thesis in sustainable agriculture, is credited with piecing together the huge amount of financial data required to make the project work. She has also led the team in creating the demonstration watersheds and several different modules with step-by-step manuals for different types of users.

One of the early users who helped test ACPF has been James Martin, southeast regional coordinator with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “The new financial tools will be valuable,” he said. “I think they will be especially useful when we’re working with partners who can provide additional financial or technical support to work with landowners in priority areas.”

Support for ACPF and FiNRT has come primarily from the USDA ARS and the Iowa Nutrient Research Center. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is funding additional steps to maintain the tools and expand their availability. 

“We’re excited to be able to introduce FiNRT, which we’ve been working on for several years,” Zimmerman said. “This release makes it available for the states of Iowa and Minnesota. We look forward to including more states soon in collaboration with local partners and user groups. Illinois is close, and Ohio is in process. We ultimately expect it will be available for 11 states. Eventually, we also hope to add information about phosphorus reduction and other environmental outcomes.”