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Farming groups in Maryland and Virginia are voicing concern over the recent sudden reassignment of a federal agriculture official whom they saw as their champion in the struggle over ramping up the Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.  Some have even suggested she was yanked because she was questioning how much farmers needed to do to clean up the bay.  But the official's boss says there was nothing nefarious in her being pulled - she was simply needed elsewhere.

Dana York, a senior manager with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, had been working since last spring as a senior advisor to the bay program in the Environmental Protection Agency's office in Annapolis. But late last month she was ordered back to Washington to take on a new assignment.

Her reassignment prompted letters from the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc., which represents chicken growers and producers, and the Virginia Grain Producers Association. In a letter to growers, Bill Satterfield, executive director of the poultry group, called York's reassignment "a big blow" to farmers' ability to cope with the Obama administration's moves to ramp up bay restoration efforts, including proposals to expand regulation of poultry and other livestock farms.

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In a separate letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Satterfield went even further. "We don't know for sure, but many of our members believe she was transferred because she was just too proactive for agriculture and was thus not well received by EPA and others in the Obama government," he wrote.  "We need somebody in there fighting for agriculture," he added. "We fear that Ms. York's reassignment takes away our champion."

 he Virginia group's letter voiced "deep concern" over York's removal.  "In her absence, farmers will be more frustrated and less likely to participate in programs that do not reflect her leadership," its letter said.

In her six months in Annapolis, York, former associate chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service who lives on the Eastern Shore, had questioned how well the EPA's computer modeling had documented what steps farmers have already taken to curb polluted runoff from their fields and feedlots.  She also had pressed to streamline government incentives to farmers to adopt conservation measures, while appealing to farmers to cooperate with the bay cleanup effort.  Those who worked with her in Annapolis said they were unaware of any conflicts with EPA officials and praised her efforts.

Dave White, the chief of the NRCS, says York's reassignment was for internal personnel, not political, reasons.  "I hate to dash the (suspicions of) folks who think she was a thorn in the side of EPA," he said. Her recall to Washington "has nothing to do with the bay .. or any slight intended against agriculture," he said in a telephone interview last week.

"The simple fact of the matter is I need Ms. York and her senior executive slot," White said, to help run the agency, including oversight of emergency and economic stimulus programs.  "It's a critical job for us, and she has the skills to do that."

White said bay region farmers need not fear that the USDA is abandoning them as EPA officials press for more regulation of farming.  "I've been in agriculture a long time,'' the chief said, "and believe in the voluntary incentive approach, working with producers to comply and do bay cleanup and help them stay on the land....and that mindset is not going to change no matter where Ms. York is assigned."  White said others at NRCS would be assigned to work with the bay program.

The poultry industry's Satterfield acknowledged there may be other reasons for reassigning York, but added in an email:  "It just seems odd that if the Chesapeake Bay is such a priority for the Obama government, then why would it remove a knowledgable, career person who was working hard on bay restoration issues?"

York, reached last week while on leave, declined to discuss her reassignment, but urged bay farmers to stay engaged in the bay restoration policy debate. "This is an important time for agriculture to step up to the plate and be part of the conversation.  Through good conversation and our actions, we'll have better policy enacted.  USDA is supportive of that and will continue to be there to support it....  Agriculture does understand now that this is an important time to be part of the solution."

(Photo: USDA/NRCS)

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