Farm Bill Crosses Finish Line

After more than two years of negotiating and over a year of extending the 2008 Farm Bill, on February 7 the President signed into law a new Farm Bill, according to the Wildlife Management Institute. Led by Agriculture Committee Chairs Senator Debbie Stabenow and Congressman Frank Lucas, and Ranking Members Senator Thad Cochran and Congressman Collin Peterson, the four principal negotiators of the 2014 Farm Bill, the new law is largely seen as a victory for conservation.

“This bill includes proactive and common sense conservation programs that will help deter wetland and other habitat loss, incentivize habitat conservation and keep working farmers and ranchers on their land,” said Ducks Unlimited Chief Executive Officer, Dale Hall. “DU is thankful to the House and Senate Agriculture Committee leadership for never losing sight of these end goals. This farm bill is the best for conservation that we’ve seen in many years.”

More than $6 billion was trimmed from conservation programs in the new legislation, with much of the savings achieved by consolidating the twenty-three former conservation programs into thirteen. For example, the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program was folded into the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. In addition, several of the easement programs, like the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Grasslands Reserve Program, were combined into a single Agricultural Easement Program (AEP).

The new bill makes more than $1 billion available for easements in the AEP and allows farmers to obtain a waiver for a cash-match on high priority projects. The hope is that the new consolidated programs will be more user-friendly for producers and more efficient for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to operate.

The Conservation Reserve Program was reauthorized, however the cap for the program was lowered from 32 million acres to 24 million acres, causing some to express concern that the new cap might be too low to accommodate demand if commodity prices drop during the next several years.

In addition to consolidation of conservation programs, the new Farm Bill once again adds conservation compliance requirements to link basic conservation actions to participation in the federal crop insurance subsidy program on highly erodible lands and wetlands. It also includes a “sodsaver” provision that limits federal insurance subsidies during the first few years on lands that are tilled for the first time. This measure is aimed at protecting intact, native prairie lands in six states (Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota). Sodsaver will have important benefits to waterfowl and upland birds, as well as for sage grouse that depend on large areas of unbroken sagebrush-steppe habitat to survive.

“Sage grouse hate fragmentation of their habitat,” commented Dave Naugle, science advisor for the Sage Grouse Initiative. “The sodsaver is a game-changer for halting conversion of prairie to cropland. The pendulum has now swung in favor of ranching and conservation.”

Of importance to the nation’s sportsmen, the new legislation provides $40 million annually to fund the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, commonly known as Open Fields. This program is used to improve sportsmen’s access to private lands.

Even with the cuts in conservation funding, those in the conservation community are happy to see a new farm bill in place, believing that this was about the best that could be done considering the sentiment in Washington to reduce federal spending.

“The Farm Bill is certainly sweeping legislation, and, as such, it always inspires important policy debates about how best to improve American agriculture,” said Steve Kline, director of government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The final conference report does that, and it will improve the state of our nation’s natural resources. We can undoubtedly say that we would not be where we are today without the leadership of Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow and Ranking Member Thad Cochran of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Chairman Frank Lucas and Ranking Member Collin Peterson of the House Committee on Agriculture for years of diligent work on this bill. Their effort should be applauded by sportsmen around the country.”

Article by the Wildlife Management Institute.