Why the Farm Bill is Huge News for Hunters and Fishermen

We got a close haircut with a pair of sheep shears, our shiny boots and new blue jeans are gone, but we can still dance pretty well.

The Senate has passed a version of the Farm Bill that, in a time of crushing deficit, hunters and fishermen can at least live with. Conservation programs took a hit, losing $6 billion in funding. You say "Farm Bill" to most people and you'll see their eyelids slowly start to close. But whether we recognize it or not, what's in the Farm Bill, and what gets funded or cut, is of vital importance to hunting and fishing. A lot of what is there makes up the backbone of what we know as American conservation.

One of the hardest losses was the reduction in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) from 32 million acres to a cap of 25 million. That's a tough one for bird and waterfowl hunters, especially in the Midwest, where high prices for corn and other grains are encouraging farmers to bring land into production that for the past few decades might have been important nesting and security cover, not to mention places for us to hunt. There are currently 29 million acres enrolled in CRP, so we are looking at a loss of at least 4 million acres, maybe more since crop prices, driven up by the ethanol subsidies and 7 billion very hungry human beings, are expected to remain at record highs and CRP is, of course, a voluntary program--if you can make more money farming your ground than enrolling it in CRP, you farm it.

Yes, we'll see losses in hunting. But the more important losses will be at a systemic level that will also affect fishing. CRP was designed to keep farmers from having to raise crops on marginal lands subject to erosion, to keep streams and rivers from silting up, and to keep fertilizer from running off and poisoning watersheds. It is an incentive for private property owners to not ruin or lose our most precious resources--soil and water. The wildlife benefits have been incredible, but the core mission was clear and simple: long-term basic economic preservation. We're backing off on that right now, chasing that short-term dollar, and that's going to cost us.

What was preserved for conservation in the Farm Bill is significant, because it makes a statement that yes, we do understand that conserving basic resources and investing in conservation is an economic necessity. "The real investments in conservation survived," said Julie Sibbing, who works on Farm Bill issues for the National Wildlife Federation "We fought hard, and we have major victories in protecting wetlands, grasslands, and erosion-prone croplands. I'd say we did the best we could, and got the best we could get in the climate at this time."

One of the most interesting new twists in the Farm Bill is the linking of federal crop insurance payments to conservation practices on farmlands. Steve Kline of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, explains it like this: "Here in the U.S., we long ago accepted that the federal government has to be involved in crop insurance- the private insurance sector can't afford to insure farmers in a region where, say, a drought might cause catastrophic losses for every farm. They'd never make a profit, and even if private insurance was available, no farmer could afford it. So the federal government subsidizes that, in part to make sure that we always have enough to eat. Farmers say they can't operate without it. But we don't want to use the taxpayers' money to subsidize a farmer to destroy wetlands or plant land that will erode and drain fertilizer into a river. If you are going to get the subsidy, it has to be tied into something that will produce a value for the taxpayers that are providing the money."

The program is called Conservation Compliance, and it ties federal crop insurance to the larger conservation picture. It is furiously opposed by the Corn Growers Association and other lobbyists who, apparently, would prefer to have the taxpayer money and offer nothing in return. Some more information on the new insurance plan and other subsidies included in the new Farm Bill is at Agriculture.com.

As it emerges from the tempest of the U.S. Senate, the Farm Bill is the best that we could hope for and it still faces a tough fight in the House, which has been dismissive of conservation issues lately.