Conservation Update: Sportsmen Need to Call to Save Farm Bill

Conservation groups this week are sending a desperate plea to sportsmen: Contact your House members today and urge them to bring the Farm Bill up for a vote. The desperation is born of the frustration of watching victory slowly slip away.

After months of hard work--and against some long odds--a good bill came out of the Senate last month, then a pretty good matching bill out of the House Agriculture Committee last week. But election-year theatrics could keep the most important fish and wildlife conservation legislation from making it to President Obama's desk before the current bill expires Sept. 30.

And after that the whole year-long effort could be nullified.

"Right now the odds of getting a vote on the House floor before the August recess [typically Aug. 1 until Labor Day] doesn't look too good," said Steve Klein, Director of the Center for Agriculture and Private Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "And at that point we'll be up against a very tight deadline, because the current bill expires Sept. 30, and the (congressional) calendar is very crowded."

"Frankly, we need sportsmen to contact their House members right away. We need to get this done before Sept. 30."

If that deadline isn't passed, the following scenarios come into play:

• Congress would have to pass an extension of the current bill, or all federal farm programs would revert back to provisions of the original 1949 bill. If that happens many key conservation measures--such as the Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve initiatives--would have to go through new authorization processes because they would cease to exist.

• Since the political consequences of a lapsed Farm Bill could be disastrous--even to those against current programs--Congress is likely to pass an extension. This happened in 2008. Indeed, insiders say some members have extension bills "waiting in their back pockets."

"The problem with that is we won't know exactly what's in it," said Klein. "It would be a pretty quick vote, and we would have to hope our programs don't suffer too much."

• Once the extension is passed, the fate of the currently negotiated bill would largely be determined by the outcome of the fall election. If those opposed to conservation spending became more powerful, approval of the current bill seems unlikely.

In fact, if nothing much changes in the political dynamics on Capitol Hill, most veteran conservation lobbyists see another season of bitter, hard-fought "continuing budget resolutions" with key programs like WRP, CRP and GRP limping along with uncertain futures. That isn't to say the 2012 bill is perfect. Steep cuts were enacted in CRP in both houses that eventually will bring total acreage in the program down from the current cap of 32 million to 25 million.

But the significant change of linking compliance to conservation regulations to crop insurance subsidies made it through both houses--a move that could considerably improve the effectiveness of all conservation programs in the Farm Bill in the future.

So it's worth saving. And worth a phone call or email.

"The best thing sportsmen can do for conservation right now is to contact their House reps and tell them they want this bill to come to a vote," said Klein.

Wetlands Guidance Not Forthcoming

It's always hard for conservation initiatives to find many friends in Washington during an election season when the economy is slow. But it's becoming obvious this election cycle that if supporters of wetlands protections want a friend on Capitol Hill, they may have to find a dog.

That's the only way to describe the fate of the new set of rules developed by the Obama Administration more than a year ago that would restore some protection to wetlands like the prairie potholes and streamside riparian areas removed by the Supreme Court in rulings more than six years ago.

The House GOP leadership is so determined not to see them restored, it has included language in appropriations bills that would prevent federal agencies from implementing the new rules. It's not a new tactic by that group; they tried the same thing last year.

But now wetlands can't even find a friend from the people who seemed to be riding to their rescue by writing the new rules.

You see, because this is a guidance, not a law, the Obama Administration doesn't need congressional approval. Yet the measure is still languishing in its Office of Management and Budget, where sources say it will remain until after the election.

"They're being beaten over the head with the charge that regulations hurt business, so they don't want to give (Republicans) more ammunition," said one lobbyist for sportsmen's issues.

Not exactly a profile in political courage. But veterans of the environmental community in Washington say it's nothing new this election cycle. With the GOP labeling environmental regulations "job killers" it's been hard for fish, wildlife, clean air, clean water and public lands to find many heroes.

You don't have to look very far to see why Big Business swings a much bigger stick in Washington than Big Deer or Big Trout.

According to the site OpenSecrets.org, last year oil and gas spent $149 million lobbying congress; electric utilities spent $145 million, and real estate $66 million. And the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a major opponent of the new guidance, spent $66.5 million.

Since 1998 the broader energy industry--oil, gas and utilities--spent $3.7 billion pushing their interests. By comparison, last year the Outdoor Recreation Industry said its PAC had reached $40,000. But those veteran lobbyists for sportsmen's causes say the tide can be turned if enough sportsmen contact their congress people and the president with the demand that the new guidance be released and implemented.