Conservation Update: Busting the Buster Programs Spells Trouble for Waterfowl

_by Bob Marshall _ If there’s one word waterfowlers and others concerned about wetlands should keep in mind in the … Continued

_by Bob Marshall
_
If there’s one word waterfowlers and others concerned about wetlands should keep in mind in the weeks ahead it’s this: Buster.

As in Swampbuster and Sodbuster–two programs in The Farm Bill that are critical to preserving some of the nation’s most important waterfowl wetlands habitat. And both are at some serious risk as Congress continues to consider reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

Sodbuster, which dates to 1985, seeks to prevent landowners from plowing grasslands that have remained intact for at least 20 years by costing them eligibility to some or all farm assistance payments. The original goal was to prevent plowing of highly erodible lands from adding to the high environmental cost of erosion, which impacts everything from floods to water and air quality. But the practice also aids wildlife by helping preserve the last reserves of native grass prairies–highly important as nesting cover for waterfowl.

Swampbuster, also dating to 1985, seeks to keep wetlands from being converted to crops as well as to restore wetlands that were converted to crops. Sanctions have been tough, as the program’s language explains: “If Swampbuster is violated, USDA farm program benefits may be lost. If participants produce a crop on a converted wetland, they may lose benefits for that year. If participants convert a wetland after November 28, 1990, they risk loss of benefits for the year the conversion took place, and for the years that follow until the wetland’s functions and values are restored.”

Unfortunately, those programs now face serious threats.

There are some forces in congress opposed to government regulations that tell land owners how to use their property, especially when crop commodity prices have remained strong during the economic downturn.

And there is a push to have penalties for non-compliance of conservation measures tied to crop insurance subsidies rather than other traditional agricultural payments, such as those that help protect farmers form the vagaries of the market.

The Senate version of the Farm Bill that moved out of committee last week included a Sodbuster provision, but would reduce penalties to no more than half of a landowners subsidies, and only those linked to crop insurance. Swamp Buster is facing equally serious challenges in both houses.

Both programs have been hailed by Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited as essential to preserving the wetlands base on the prairies that produce most of the ducks hunters see each fall.

According to John Devney, head of Delta Waterfowl’s U.S. operations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contends that “Swampbuster is the sole protection for 69.2 percent of high-risk wetlands in key areas of the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region. Those wetlands support approximately 60 percent of the breeding pairs in this area.”

As Devney explained, the whole idea of conservation compliance features in the Farm Bill (as opposed to direct payments for conservation practices as in CRP), is based on the idea that a landowners getting a service from society should give something back in return.

“It’s the idea ‘if you do this for us, then we’ll do that for you,'” Devney explained. “And it’s worked really well for a long, long time.”

That’s why Devney and many other waterfowl advocates are concerned that linking penalties for non-compliance of these conservation measures only to loss of “risk management” (crop insurance) subsidies could make some programs, such as Swamp Buster, irrelevant.

“Right now, Swampbuster is only applied to traditional support programs–not to crop insurance,” Devney explained.” If crop insurance becomes the default farm safety net, Swampbuster protection will no longer be in place for wetlands. This seemingly minor change could open the door for wetland losses on an unprecedented scale in recent history.

“Simply put, the long waterfowl seasons and liberal bag limits we have enjoyed for more than a decade could vanish if Swamp Buster’s protection is rendered null and void.”

The issue gets even more complicated – and perilous – for these programs because of other battles over the Farm Bill.

“For instance, there are regional struggles within the agriculture industry that could reshape the way subsidies are paid, and that could have (unintentional) impacts on these (conservation) programs,” Devney said.

The solution: Sportsmen need to contact their congressional delegation telling them not to bust the “Busters.” You can find out how at www.contactingthecongress.org.