Conservation Update: White House Finds Funds for Wetlands, Grasslands

Sportsmen, take a bow.

Fish and wildlife finally had a good week on the conservation front because your hard work resulted in this news Friday afternoon:

The Obama administration has found a way to fund an extra million CRP acres targeted for wetlands and grasslands, and will reshuffle upwards of 70 percent (almost $30 million) of the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund (MBCF) so it goes to work on the prairie pothole region.

Those headlines were rare sweet relief for the conservation community, which has spent most of the last 14 months as the favorite piñata of so-called deficit hawks in congress as well as at the administration. In 2011, the House of Representatives attempted to eviscerate decades-long conservation programs that have proven to be money makers for the economy. And last month President Obama's 2013 budget showed no funding for the Wetlands Reserve or Grasslands Reserve programs.

But conservationists never stopped working behind the scenes, looking for ways to limit the damage. So when the White House convened its scheduled "Growing America's Outdoor Heritage and Economy" conference Friday, those announcements were made to the cheers of hunters, anglers and everyone else who values fish, wildlife and a healthier environment.

The CRP moves at once fill the hole in the president's budget on WRP and GRP, and does it in a way that is more efficient for CRP and the taxpayers funding the programs because the acres are targeted for specific, highest-need programs. Here are the highlights:

- 200,000 acres for wetlands restoration.

- 400,000 additional acres for the SAFE program - State Acres For wildlife Enhancement, which targets specific needs of high value wildlife.

- 150,000 additional acres for duck nesting habitat (currently totals 175,000 acres).

- 150,000 additional acres for upland bird habitat buffer (currently has 244,000 acres).

- 100,000 additional acres for continuous pollinators.

- Landowner incentives increased by raising the sign-up bonus from $100 to $150, a way to compete with the rising value of crops.

These new acres will be enrolled as "continuous" CRP acres, meaning landowners who have lands that qualify will not have to wait for a general sing-up, but can join the program at any time.

All of this news will help mitigate the damage surely to be done in September when an estimated 6.2 million acres of CRP contracts expire, with most of those likely to leave the program. A general enrollment being held this month is hoping to draw 750,000 acres, but there is little hope to meet the program's enrollment cap of 30 million acres.

Praise for the administration's initiatives were rolling from every sportsmen's corner, including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. And while the White House--and the Department of Agriculture, in particular--deserve applause, sportsmen should give a thumbs-up to the face they see in the mirror for this very important reason: Your phone calls, emails and letters helped get this done.

"The rank-and-file guy out there should know that his efforts paid off," said George Cooper, a TRCP board member. "A lot of the issues that (Field & Stream) touched on (in the March edition) were addressed here.

"We should point out that this administration--and the people at Agriculture in particular--have been very pro-active and supportive all along when it comes to CRP. But the push we got on this issue helped make a positive difference."

But don' forget that we'll need plenty more of the same in the months ahead to hold on to what we've built with sweat, dollars, and love over the last 70 years.

"What I hope we also take from this is that we shouldn't wait until the Grim Reaper is knocking on the door to get involved," Cooper added. "We need to be pro-active, to prevent these dire situations from developing.

"But, right now, this has been a good day. A very good day."