With Congress Soon to Conference, Coalition Comments on Growing Conservation in the Farm Bill
Fish, wildlife and agriculture policy specialists that have met for three years to analyze bill offer updated program-by-program guidance
WASHINGTON - With Congress poised to name the members of a conference committee that will refine the differences between the versions of the "Farm Bill" passed in the House and Senate, a coalition of the nation's leading hunting, fishing and conservation groups today submitted fresh guidance on how to shape the final bill.
"This team has been dedicated to working on behalf of fish and wildlife since this Farm Bill was only a tiny speck on the legislative horizon," said George Cooper, President and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership on the Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group. "Their dedication was evidenced by the clear thinking outlined in the Growing Conservation in the Farm Bill report, and it runs through this current round of analysis."
In a letter circulated throughout the halls of Congress, a dozen organizations united under the banner of the Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group (AWWG) called for the following approaches to be taken in the final Farm Bill, which represents our nation's single largest public investment in fish and wildlife habitat on America's private lands.
The organizations jointly offering these recommendations are the American Sportfishing Association, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Ducks Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League of America, the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation, National Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Quail Unlimited, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited and The Wildlife Society.
- Funding for Conservation Title
The AWWG strongly supports and is appreciative of the funding increases both the House and Senate were able to provide in the face of truly difficult budgetary circumstances. This critical money helps renew important existing programs and offers new incentives to farmers and ranchers who seek to address their conservation and land stewardship needs while also providing ecological and recreational benefits. We understand that differences in the funding methods between the two bills will need to be addressed as well. Regardless of the outcome on funding methods, the AWWG would strongly oppose any efforts to reduce funding level increases below the threshold amount of $4 billion in the Senate bill and strongly urge the conference committee to work towards an increase of the $4.5 billion provided in the House bill or greater. This amount would serve to advance further meaningful improvements to fish and wildlife habitat and establish conservation as a top-tier priority in the Farm Bill. Several programs in particular could benefit from increased funding:
Funding for Grassland Reserve Program (GRP)
GRP is renewed in both bills but authorized enrollment acreage is less than the current Farm Bill level. The AWWG seeks reauthorization for GRP at 2 million acres per year. Other AWWG recommendations for GRP include a formula for calculating easement payments that will make easements the most economical alternative to the applicant, the minimum acreage cap should not apply to native prairie remnants in counties suffering more than 90 percent loss of native grasslands, and GRP-enrolled acres should not be subject to the county cap applied to other conservation programs.
Funding Levels for Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP)
Under the House and Senate bills, WHIP funding is maintained at the level of $85 million per year. This falls short of AWWG's recommendation for funding in 2008 of $100 million with an incremental increase to $300 million per year during the life of this Farm Bill. Other AWWG priorities for WHIP include targeting a significant portion of new funds for aquatic restoration activities, including instream habitat improvement projects. This funding level will better address unfunded applications and provide a more stable foundation for much-needed aquatic habitat restoration. Also, new authority is needed within WHIP to pay annual incentive payments to farmers and ranchers to restore important fish and wildlife habitats. Farmers and ranchers continue to express interest in receiving annual incentive payments for incorporating conservation into their operations.
Funding for Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
CSP rewards farmers for the good stewardship they already practice and provides them with powerful incentives to achieve even higher levels of resource protection. States are already beginning to document improvements to wildlife habitat where CSP has been implemented. The AWWG supports reauthorization of CSP and finding funding to continue and build on its successes. This should be done in a way that provides increased, measurable, and consistent benefits for fish and wildlife conservation.
Funding for Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP)
USDA's conservation agencies need adequate resources to continue assessing fish and wildlife, soil, water, and air benefits produced by conservation programs and practices. Monitoring and evaluation of the environmental effects and benefits of these programs enhances conservation policy, guides conservation program implementation, improves program efficiency and effectiveness, and helps farmers and ranchers make informed conservation choices. The Secretary is directed to allocate $20 million per year to each USDA conservation agency to quantify and document environmental services that are derived from USDA conservation programs and practices. The AWWG supports this funding.
- Removal of Acreage Caps for Various Programs
The current Senate bill sets county acreage caps for a variety of conservation programs that our coalition feels should be removed:
Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) Acreage Caps - CCRP and CREP are designed to address specific conservation issues, such as buffers along streams and rivers. The AWWG recommends these programs be exempted from the county acreage cap of 25% for general CRP.
Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) Acreage Caps - The AWWG recommends that WRP acreage be exempted from the 25% county cap for CRP.
Healthy Forest Reserve Program (HFRP) and WRP Easement Caps - The AWWG recommends that the 10% county caps on easements affecting these programs be removed.
- Inclusion of 'Open Fields' Provision
The AWWG supports the 'Open Fields' provision included in the 2007 Farm Bill that would provide $20 million per year in additional resources to states to expand or initiate public access programs. This is extremely important to the hunting and fishing community and the 87 million Americans who participated in fish and wildlife recreational activities in 2006. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this group injected over $120 billion in spending on these activities into rural economies in 2006 alone. It is important that this new Farm Bill move forward to provide incentives for public access to wildlife recreation.
- Strengthening Sodsaver Provision
This country's remaining native grasslands are one of the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, and they are critical to the livelihoods of our nation's traditional ranching families. A comprehensive Sodsaver provision enacted in the Farm Bill will defuse this threat. The AWWG supports the current bills' limitations on crop insurance eligibility. The Senate bill language that does not limit ineligibility to four years is preferred over the House version that does set such a limit. The AWWG further recommends that meaningful Sodsaver language specify that native grassland without a prior cropping history be ineligible for all Farm Bill program payments. This includes commodity, crop insurance, conservation, and disaster payments. Moreover, a date-certain clause reflecting 'July 1, 2007' as the effective date of these changes needs to be added to the bill. Landowners are not prohibited from breaking native grassland, but federal payments should no longer provide incentives for doing so.
- Tax Incentives for Conservation Easements
The Senate bill provides for permanent extension of enhanced tax deductions for conservation easements that are currently set to expire. The AWWG strongly supports this permanent extension in the final Farm Bill. This allows taxpayers to deduct a certain percentage of their Adjusted Gross Income for donations of conservation easements and should remain as a valuable tool available to conservationists.
- Wetlands Reserve Program
Funding was renewed and the authorized enrollment cap was extended for WRP, the nation's leading wetlands restoration program, in both bills. The AWWG was also pleased the program language received a needed amendment in the Senate to correct an administrative issue discouraging farmers from enrolling their marginal cropland in the program. As a result of the land's current undervaluation, enrollment in the program has dropped dramatically across the country. In Wisconsin for example, enrollment dropped from 3,000 acres in 2005 to only 30 acres in 2006. In Mississippi, a state with some of the highest need to restore wetlands, enrollment dropped from 8,400 acres in 2005 to zero in 2006. We strongly believe this amendment should be maintained in conference to get the program back on track and once again help farmers conserve their marginal cropland across the country.
- Conservation-friendly Approaches to Promoting Biofuels Development
Carefully structured, Farm Bill energy provisions could help to foster the expedited development of biomass energy in ways that protect soil, water, fish and wildlife resources. Yet if not carefully implemented, incentives could support the destruction of native habitats and undermine the significant investment of taxpayer dollars, and gains achieved over the past 20 years through Farm Bill conservation programs. We are fully supportive of sound, science-based incentives for biomass energy development through the Energy Title of the Farm Bill but not at the expense of Conservation Title programs.
While the AWWG supports the improvements made to the Senate Biomass Crop Transition Assistance Program in the Manager's Amendment, we believe that the Biomass Energy Reserve Program in the House bill better accounts for the needs of wildlife in advancing biomass energy. Still, we strongly recommend two improvements to the House language. One key improvement is to drop "varying harvest dates" from the list of variables to be selected for in the program. Extensive research already exists that documents the detrimental effects on ground nesting bird species of harvesting during nesting and brood rearing seasons. Another needed improvement is to add an explicit requirement to the "Additional Eligible Biomass" section that ensures that CRP harvest for biomass does not, in any case, occur more frequently than once every 3 years in order to maintain some wildlife habitat value and, in the case of forested CRP, harvest for biomass only include materials generated as a result of forest management activities such as pruning, thinning, and timber stand improvement.
- Declaring some public lands eligible for conservation programs where those lands are a part of an existing private-land agricultural operation
There are many private agricultural operations involved in leasing federal or state lands. Many times where public lands involve private natural resource use, authority is needed to use USDA conservation program funds to improve conservation work on both the private and public portions of the operation.
- Water Savings
We appreciate the fact that both the House and Senate bills include water savings provisions in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). This provision ensures that conservation title dollars spent on irrigation equipment will not dewater rivers and streams. Particularly in the West, where ranchers and farmers are hit hard by the twin forces of continued drought and rapid population growth's demand for water, a new water savings provision in the Farm Bill will help protect our water supplies and precious irrigation water from new demands, thereby protecting the fish and wildlife which depend on those waters. The House bill version contains the safeguard requirement that all EQIP-funded irrigation improvements avoid increasing the "consumptive use of water" in the producer's operation. We urge conferees to either accept the House version, or formulate a compromise which retains the House requirement to not increase consumptive use of water.
- Improved Efficiency in Conservation Compliance Regimen
Improving and streamlining reviews of good faith determinations for Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation can be achieved by designating the Farm Service Agency (FSA) State Executive Director or Regional Director as the eligible reviewer with technical concurrence of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) State Conservationist or Area Conservationist. Further, stipulating that any penalties be commensurate with the seriousness of the individual violations will be more appropriate than the pre-determined amount that is presently required. The Senate language carries the review provisions for HEL and WC, and the revised penalty provision for HEL. We urge conferees to include them in the final legislation, while also encouraging conferees to extend penalty efficiencies to determinations regarding Wetlands Conservation. This clearly designated responsibility will speed resolution and better serve producers and soil and wetland resources.
"A robust national investment in the Farm Bill's Conservation Title will end up reaping an incredible harvest of fish and wildlife," said Barton James of Ducks Unlimited, a co-chair of the working group. "It will do so by protecting soil and water quality, wetlands, grasslands and other fragile ecosystems that are fast disappearing. For hunters, anglers and those who love just getting into the great American outdoors, passing a final Farm Bill that mirrors our recommendations is of the utmost importance."--Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership