For Conservation, It Was Not a Very Good Year

As political pundits attempt to assess the impact of the fiscal cliff deal struck by Congress earlier this week, it is becoming increasingly clear that the biggest loser may have been conservation. Here's what happened, and where we stand:

- The biggest immediate blow may have come when the House refused to pass the new Farm Bill, instead giving a nine-month extension to the old bill. That cast ominous shadows of uncertainty over many of the nation's most effective and proven habitat conservation measures, including Conservation Reserve, Grasslands Reserve and Wetlands Reserve programs. While it is believed legal authorization for those initiatives has been extended, there has been no additional funding.

"There may be some (funding) left to carry some of those programs forward, but no one is sure yet how much that is and how long it can last," said Steve Kline, Director of the Center for Agriculture and Private Lands at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

That means farmers waiting for enrollment in these programs could decide to put their lands to other uses that bring income immediately. With CRP already down more six million acres since 2007, these loses will add to the already spiraling decline in upland hunting traditions in states like Iowa, which even The New York Times has noticed.

Equally damaging, by not acting on the Farm Bill the House killed a landmark breakthrough that would have begun tying compliance to habitat conservation programs like Sod Buster and Swamp Buster to taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance, an economic lynchpin for farmers. The equation was simple and long-overdue: We'll help pay for your insurance if you give the nation something in return - namely, conservation of the land that helps fish, wildlife and even farming. It would have gone a long way to securing the future of some programs.

The extension of the old bill doesn't hold that key feature - one, by the way, that would have saved the nation tens of millions of dollars over the life of the next bill.

Incredibly, one of the features that was passed with the extension is direct payments to farmers for commodity crops - such as corn, beans and cotton - estimated to cost $5 billion a year and which would have been eliminated under the full five-year farm bill.

- The fiscal cliff agreement postponed for two months, rather than eliminated, the sequestration budget cuts required by the Budget Control Act of 2012. That means conservation programs will likely be in for more budget cutting.

- The Sportsman's Act, which would have provided funding for critical fish and wildlife habitat, created more shooting ranges, and given sportsmen easier access to millions of acres of public lands, was torpedoed when senators engaged in a spate of post-election revenge taking.

All of which means conservation, once again, has been placed at the very bottom of the bottom-line. And that means the future of conservation programs that have long provided the habitat base providing American sportsmen with the greatest public hunting and fishing experiences in the industrialized world - and the nine million jobs that depend on those traditions - remain on a knife's edge.

It has been a tremendously deflating experience for the staffs at the many sportsmen's conservation groups who worked long hours over the last year in attempts to salvage something for fish and wildlife in a desperate and poisonous political environment.

By Wednesday they were already sifting through game plans for what will likely be an even tougher 2013 environment for their causes.

"So here we go again, probably facing even more cuts in the coming (battles over sequestration and the debt limit), even before we get to the appropriations process for the next fiscal year," said Kline.

"I think the real important message sportsmen have to have is that this notion that we can't afford conservation during hard times is simply not true. Cutting conservation is tremendously short-sighted and ends up costing us much more in the long run than we save in the short term - and not just to fish and wildlife, but to the health of the nation's land and future productivity.

"Getting that message out (to Congress) is really essential. That's our battle."