Congress passed a new Farm Bill in February 2014. Through the efforts of numerous Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus (CSC) members, the newly passed Farm Bill provides several protections for fish and wildlife habitat. Of particular note, the consolidation of conservation easement programs into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, renewal of the Conservation Reserve Program, renewal of wetlands protections by re-coupling crop insurance and conservation compliance, and the creation of a Sodsaver program to protect the nation’s grasslands.
Every five years, Congress passes the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, a bundle of legislation that sets national agriculture, nutrition, forestry, and conservation policy, commonly referred to as the "Farm Bill." CSC members, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture Rep. Frank Lucas and Ranking Member Rep. Collin Peterson, Senator Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and Senator Thad Cochran, the committee's Ranking Member, were active proponents of the conservation titles within the bill.
On June 5, CSF hosted a Breakfast Briefing focusing on next steps for the Farm Bill in the 113th Congress and the important suite of programs associated with the legislation that support soil, water, and fish and wildlife conservation on America's farms and ranches. Click here to read to press release.
Following the formation of a conference committee, the House and Senate approved the conference bill and President Obama signed the legislation into law on February 7, 2014. This bipartisan legislation enhances and strengthens vital policies important to sportsmen and women across the United States and has been a long standing priority of CSC.
Renewed Wetland Protections
The 1996 FARM bill de-coupled conservation compliance from federal crop insurance. This policy, reinstituted in 2014, satisfies both the goals of providing a safety net for the nation’s farmers along with conserving habitat for fish and wildlife. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates this policy has saved over 3 million acres of wetlands and reduces nearly 300 million tons of soil erosion each year. Restoring the relationship between conservation and crop insurance generates widespread benefits beyond the agriculture and conservation communities.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
With an estimated wetland habitat loss of over 50 percent nationally, the rapid decline of wetland habitat in the United States presents a serious challenge to conservation. Historically, the Farm Bill has used a series of conservation easement programs to combat this issue. In 2014, several of these programs were combined to create the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) which is now the largest federal wetlands conservation program. Farmers are given the opportunity to enroll marginal cropland in conservation easement programs that will receive upwards of $2 billion throughout the next five years. Similar to conservation compliance, ACEP’s benefits are widely distributed through reducing flood damage and conserving fish and wildlife habitat.
Conservation Reserve Program
The Conservation Reserve Program administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency provides farmers an opportunity to re-allocate marginal farmland towards conservation. The program offers incentives in the form of annual rent payments and cost-sharing. Notably, CRP is credited with adding 25.7 million ducks to the fall migration from 1992-2003. Waterfowl numbers have continued to rise with record breeding numbers for 2014 approaching 50 million ducks. Despite the observed benefits to wildlife, the enrollment cap was reduced in the 2014 Farm bill from 27.5 million acres to 24 million acres in 2017.
The Prairie Pothole Region, an area crucial to migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, has experienced a rate of grassland loss outpacing protection by at least 500 percent. Key among the 2014 provisions of the Farm bill, the Sodsaver provision combats the issue of grassland conversion to farmland in the Prairie Pothole Region including Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Sodsaver does not outlaw grassland conversion; however, it eliminates half of the insurance premium subsidies available to farmers during the four years following conversion. This way, farmers have less of an incentive to break ground on native sod when crop prices rise and taxpayers bear less of the insurance risk on this land.
As the time comes to draft the next Farm Bill, CSF and CSC members will once again work to implement strong provisions in the conservation title. The most recent Farm Bill contains many conservation successes; however, opportunities for improvement are available. Conservation easement and reserve programs were scaled back in the 2014 Farm Bill. Reversing those reductions could be one approach to strengthen conservation in the next bill.
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