Conservation Report: Sportsmen See Hope in Senate Action on Farm Bill

When is a $6 billion cut in conservation spending not labeled terrible news?

When it could have been a lot worse.

We're talking here about the Conservation Title in the Senate version of the new Farm Bill that cleared committee Thursday and moved to the floor of that chamber. Although the measure shows $6 billion in cuts over the next 10 years for cherished wildlife initiatives such as the Conservation Reserve Program, that amounts to about a 10 percent cut in previous funding rather than the deep and senseless chops some in Congress were advocating about a year ago.

For decades the Farm Bill has included some of the most effective fish and wildlife conservation programs in the nation's history, because it directly effects how large landscapes are managed. Wildlife and fish have derived huge benefits from programs such as VCRO, Wetlands Reserve, Grasslands Reserve and many others.

But as the nation sunk into its historic recession in 2007, many in Congress looked to the huge bill as a place for easy savings, lumping in conservation programs that actually return dollars to the economy in the same category as crop insurance and nutrition programs. Things looked bleak for sportsmen's interests.

The bill that came out of the Senate committee this week, however, doesn't look devastating, and actually includes some reforms conservation groups support.

In a press briefing Thursday, Steve Kline, director of the Center for Agriculture and Private Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, outlined some of the highlights of the measure that could come to a floor vote in the Senate as early as May:

• The 23 existing conservation programs will be consolidated into 13 programs.

• The cap on CRP acres will be reduced from 32 million acres to 25 million acres over the next three years.

• The Open Fields program is funded at $40 million through 2017, $10 million less than originally planned.

• The Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve programs, at one time marked out, have been renamed "easement" programs and survive. And while the old programs were based on acreage caps, the new editions will be based on dollars, allowing administrators greater flexibility in addressing critical habitat.

A House version of the bill is already moving through subcommittees, and Klein said sportsmen's groups are hopeful for similar outcomes. The major goal all sportsmen should be pushing for is a bill on the president's desk before Oct. 1, when the current measure expires.

"Let me say that $6 billion in cuts to conservation isn't something we relish, and it certainly would have been easier if we didn't have to do this," said Kline. "This hurts, and we will do less conservation - less CRP and less of everything.

"So (sportsmen) should keep that in mind."

But it could have been worse.