Farm Bill Expires at End of Month, Conservationists Urging for Renewal

This is where all the political gamesmanship over the budget for the last year has put fish, wildlife and sportsmen: The current Farm Bill expires at the end of the month, which could bring a halt to the wide range of programs it supports, including Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve. The Senate passed a bill that drew praise from sportsmen during the summer, and the House Agriculture Committee followed suit. But GOP deficit hawks think it gives too much to nutrition programs like school lunches and conservation, while some Democrats think the cuts to nutrition programs are too steep.

Veteran Hill lobbyists say they fear election year politics is now having an impact, with each side afraid a vote either way could be used against them.

"The calendar doesn't lie, and right now it says we've got eight legislative days (days when congress meets and can vote) before the end of September, and there's no evidence of a Farm Bill on that (House) calendar," said Steve Kline, director Center for Agricultural and Private Lands Director at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

There is widespread speculation that the politicians will kick this hot potato past the November election by passing an extension of the current bill. That presents serious problems for conservation programs, especially CRP, WRP and GRP.

"Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve lose their authorization on Sept. 30, so no one is sure where an extension that would put them," said Kline. "We'd also lose authorization for the Chesapeake Bay (estuary) program, and we would lose the ability to have a new CRP sign-up."

An extension also could put those critical wildlife conservation programs at even greater risk because it is unlikely Congress would act after the election. If that happens and Congress still hasn't passed a new budget -- which also is unlikely -- then the Farm Bill and all other discretionary spending would be facing mandatory across-the-boards cuts under the Budget Control Act passed last year, which directs congress to immediately trim $1.2 trilling in spending. The problem with that is conservationists would have little to say about how those cuts would be enacted.

What is known already is that the defense cuts required under the act have already become a political jousting point, so it's likely many in congress will attempt to shift those cuts to other areas -- and conservation is likely to be a favorite target.

So sportsmen's groups like the TRCP this week are joining with farm groups to hold a Farm Bill Now Rally in Washington, hoping the media attention will prompt the GOP to move its bill out of the House.

"That's where our attention is focused right now," said Kline. "Everyone knows we're running out of time. We're going to find out if they care enough about this to get the job done."