Sportsmen Urged to Call About Farm Bill

The Sportsmen's Act may be heading to an unwarranted and unnecessary grave, but sportsmen still have something really important to fight for in the last weeks of this Congress: the Farm Bill.

Conservation groups are asking hunters, anglers, and anyone else who cares about fish and wildlife to contact their congressional delegations and urge them to support passage of a bill that includes two essential features.

The first would link full payment of crop insurance subsides to compliance with Sod Saver and Swamp Buster conservation measures in the Farm Bill. The second would make the new Sod Savers provision apply to all regions of the country.

The Senate version of the bill includes both those provisions. The House version does not.

"The House version would restrict the Sod Saver provisions mostly to the prairie pothole area, and that would be a real loss to fish and wildlife across the rest of the country," said Steve Klein, Director of the Center for Agriculture and private Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Sod Saver stops producers in the prairie pothole region from breaking up native sod for agricultural purposes and subsequently buying tax-subsidized insurance to protect the crop. Swamp Buster works the same way.

There has been opposition to the provision, especially among some House GOP members from farm states, who claim it is a new regulation - but that claim is demonstrably false.

Coupling eligibility for federal insurance subsidies to compliance with these two features actually began in 1985. It was a quid-pro-quo that obviously worked well for taxpayers, landowners and fish and wildlife because up to 90 percent of insurance enrollees were practicing conservation. Yet in 1995 Congress decided to decouple that requirement, claiming removal would somehow increase the number of insurance enrollees and provide the treasury with a cushion of payments to soften the blow on claims.

Time has shown the only thing that move did was increase the cost to the taxpayers. According to Ducks Unlimited, between 2002 and 2011 federal premium support for crop insurance has grown from $1.5 billion $7.4 billion.

Resurrecting the compliance feature returns the program to the days when it was more than just a mere handout to farmers.

"It's not a regulation, it's a qualification," said Klein. "If you want this benefit - which on average is having the federal government pick up about 60 percent of the cost of our crop insurance premiums - then you have to qualify for it by adhering to conservation practices.

"If you don't, you still get a federal subsidy, just much less."

Nor can opponents claim the nation can't afford these conservation measures. Klein said the Sod Saver provision alone will save the nation about $200 million over 10 years.

The need for grass roots action is urgent, as Congress is racing toward the end of its session still in negotiations over avoiding the so-called "fiscal cliff." If the two houses can't agree on a new farm bill, the only alternative would be to extend the current bill. However, they might not be enough time left even for that, Klein said. Extending a bill about to expire isn't as simple as picking the old document and voting on it, Klein said, because too many other bills have budget decisions have already been made affecting provisions in that bill.

If nothing scrapes through before the end of the year, the farm industry could be thrown into chaos - and fish and wildlife habitat could suffer irreparable damage.

"We have programs such as Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve that would cease to exist, so we could be going a whole year without protecting those critical habitats," Klein said.

And once many of those acres are converted to other uses, they are lost forever.

"So we really need sportsmen to contact their representatives and tell them how important this is - now," he said.

You can find out who your House and Senate members are and how to contact them at www.contactingthecongress.org.