Germination of Conservation Fortunes in the New Farm Bill Remains Uncertain

Germination of Conservation Fortunes in the New Farm Bill Remains Uncertain

After months of negotiations and several extensions of the 2002 legislation, Congress was finally able to craft a 2008 Farm Bill that garnered enough support on Capitol Hill to override the veto issued by the White House. As with most legislation similarly comprehensive, there are good points, and others not so good from a wildlife conservation perspective, according to the Wildlife Management Institute.

Among the more disappointing provisions, and despite intense efforts to include it in a manner that would have effectively protected the nation's remaining prairie land, a watered-down version of Sodsaver was incorporated in the new law. As passed, the Sodsaver provision in the 2008 bill affects only a few states and allows the governors in those states to opt in or out of the program. Many in the conservation community believe it very unlikely that most of those governors will choose to implement Sodsaver provisions.

In addition, the cap on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage was reduced from a 39.2-million-acre limit in the 2002 Farm Bill to 32 million. CRP is generally regarded as the most important U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program positively affecting wildlife. The loss of millions of acres of CRP almost certainly will adversely impact many grassland-dependent wildlife species around the country.

Throughout the process to get the new Farm Bill written, there seemed to be a shift of emphasis from delivering conservation through traditional programs, such as CRP and Sodsaver, to incorporation of conservation through a working-lands concept. Consequently, such programs as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP, formerly called the Conservation Security Program) were reauthorized at increased funding levels above the 2002 limits. EQIP is primarily directed at enhancing water quality, and CSP provides payments to landowners to practice conservation on working agricultural land.

On the plus side for wildlife, the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) were both reauthorized after their baseline budgets had been zeroed out. As a result, new funding had to be secured to continue these programs. In addition, a problem in the appraisal process for WRP was addressed, which should increase interest in enrollment for that program. Also, $50 million was authorized to fund the Open Fields Program aimed at improving public access to private lands for wildlife-related recreation.

The next step will be development of rules and regulations by the USDA to put the mandates in the 2008 Farm Bill on the ground. It will be critical that the wildlife conservation community have a seat at the table during this process to ensure the needs of wildlife are considered when the new rules, regulations and policies are drafted. (pmr)

June 18, 2008