After nearly three years of partisan wrangling, the House Agriculture Committee came to an agreement on the 2014 Farm Bill on January 29. The agreement paves the way for the bill to sail through the Senate and be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The nearly $1 trillion dollar bill preserves a number of conservation programs that protect vital habitat for a variety of game and non-game species. Generally, it was a big win for hunters and other conservationists, according to Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Director of Government Relations Steve Kline.
"The conservation community has been advocating for the conservation provisions in the Farm Bill for nearly three years. Getting past the House was the biggest hurdle," Kline said. "The best way to describe the final legislation is that everybody got something and nobody got everything, including the conservation community."
CRP Takes A Hit
The most noticeable loss was a $6 billion decrease in overall conservation funding from the 2008 Farm Bill. Also, acreage for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was capped at 24 million acres, down from a cap of 32 million acres. That's not necessarily bad, according to Delta Waterfowl Vice President of US policy John Devney. Current enrollment is less than 17 million acres.
"We figured that was going to happen. Enrollment has been steadily declining over the past few years," he says. "It's still the largest and most beneficial conservation program in the Farm Bill, and it will remain a vital part of the conservation landscape."
Kline agreed, adding that the new cap starts at 27.5 million acres this year and falls to 24 million in 2018.
Also, new CRP provisions are a little more farmer-friendly than previous farm bills, giving landowners a stronger incentive to enroll. The provisions open 2 million acres of CRP land to grazing and allow emergency grazing and haying of other CRP ground without a penalty. Farmers can also opt out early in 2015 without a penalty.
"In some ways the cuts to CRP were sort of a sacrifice for the good of other conservation programs," Kline said. "The new CRP provisions are just a reflection of what's going on on the ground. I won't be surprised if enrollment increases as commodity prices fall."
Devney said the most valuable and beneficial part of the conservation programs is the renewal of the conservation compliance program, known as "Swamp Busters."
Every conservation organization lobbied hard for this provision. It prevents farmers from draining wetlands and requires farmers to leave highly erodible land intact in order to receive federal crop insurance.
There was no conservation compliance requirement between 1996 and the 2014 Farm Bill. No one can say how many acres of wetlands were affected during that period, but a page on the Ducks Unlimited web site said as many as 3.3 million acres of wetlands and 14 million acres of highly erodible lands were at risk.
"The strengthening of the conservation compliance requirement is huge," Devney said. "Thirty-two percent of breeding duck pairs in the Prairie Potholes Region were saved through the conservation compliance based on studies conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Farmers can still drain wetlands, but they can not receive any federal assistance if they do. This compliance provision is huge."
Native Grass Protected
The bill also included funding for the "Sod Saver" program, which is similar to Swamp Busters. It provides economic incentives to prevent farmers from plowing under critical native grasses.
Although the conservation community was hoping this part of the Farm Bill would have protected native grasses nationwide, it limits Sod Saver provisions to the Prairie Pothole Region, as well as Iowa and Nebraska.
"That's where grasslands are most threatened," Texas Parks and Wildlife Farm Bill coordinator and National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative chairman-elect Chuck Kowaleski said. "It will benefit a variety of upland birds and grassland-dependant game and non-game wildlife and it comes at an extremely critical time."
The new bill also consolidates many of the various habitat programs, ending the sometimes confusing alphabet soup of programs aimed at preserving and restoring essential habitat throughout the country. Twenty programs were condensed into thirteen.
The popular Wetlands Preserve Program, for instance, will be combined with the Grassland Reserve Program and the Forestland Preserve Program into the Agricultural Conservation Easement (ACE) program. The move is designed to save money as well as streamline the enrollment process.
The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program has been rolled into the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, and 5 percent of EQIP funding must now go towards wildlife-specific projects. EQIP was allocated $1.35 billion in 2014 and $1.75 billion in 2018. An additional $25 million was allocated for Conservation Innovation Grants.
More Access For Hunters
Additionally, the new Farm Bill restores funding for hunting access programs such as Kansas' popular Walk-In Hunting Area program, which leases private land for public hunting access. The federal program is known as the Voluntary Public Access-Habitat Incentive Program and has played a significant role in opening private land to public hunting throughout numerous western states.
Kowaleski said the current bill allocates $40 million for VPA-HIP over the five-year life of the new bill. The previous Farm Bill allocated $50 million for public access, but that money was taken out after protests from some Congressmen, Kowaleski said.
The 2014 Farm Bill still has to make it through the Senate before it can be signed into law by the president. Although the Washington Post ran an editorial calling for President Obama to veto the bill, Klein expects it to become law.
The conservation provisions were the result of input and lobbying efforts by a variety of conservation groups, including Pheasants Forever, DU, Delta, NBCI and a host of other pro-hunting groups.