Good News for Sportsmen: Congressional Committees Agree on the Farm Bill

For three long years, sportsmen’s groups have been fighting a frustrating battle trying to save key habitat conservation programs from … Continued

For three long years, sportsmen’s groups have been fighting a frustrating battle trying to save key habitat conservation programs from many members of Congress who seemed intent on gutting or killing them.

That frustration may finally be ending.

In what is arguably the best conservation news since the start of the fiscal crisis in 2007, Congressional committees announced agreement on a Farm Bill that includes two features critical to fish and wildlife conservation:

First, farmers once again will be required to comply with conservation programs in order to fully qualify for taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance. The Sod Saver program will now be mandatory in the key duck producing states of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Second, funding for the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Grassland Reserve Program will be restored.

Two final hurdles remain: approval of the full House and the Senate. The House votes the bill Wednesday, and while odds of passage are good, this body has twice before ignored the advice of its committees. But if it gets through the House, Senate passage next week looks assured.

This break came after equally encouraging news earlier this month that Congress was completing its first regular budgeting process since 2010, which gave new life to a list of other habitat conservation programs. An Interior, Environment and Related Agencies bill included these highlights:

– The North American Wetlands Conservation Fund was increased more than $500,000, to $34.145 million.

– The State and Tribal Wildlife Grants Program was increased about $500,000, to $58.695 million.

– The Land and Water Conservation Fund was given about $300 million, a small increase.

– The National Wildlife Refuge System received a 4 percent increase, from $454 million to $472 million.

– The Bureau of Land Management Wildlife Management Program received $15 million to help prevent an Endangered Species Act listing of the greater sage grouse.

Sportsmen’s groups had a lot to be happy about, but the Farm Bill agreement was clearly the highlight.

That link between conservation compliance and subsidies had been the norm between 1985 and 1995, because it made plain sense. Instead of an outright taxpayers’ giveaway to farmers, the linkage created an old-fashioned quid-pro-quo: Something for something.

In this case, taxpayers would help pay a farmer’s crop insurance in exchange for the farmer’s participation in land use practices that help conserve fish, wildlife, water and land. Ninety percent of those receiving crop insurance participated in the program.

But in 1995, Congress yielded to pressure from the farm lobby and de-coupled the programs.

Sportsmen and others who value fish and wildlife saw landowner cooperation begin the slide. And, according to Ducks Unlimited, federal premium support for crop insurance jumped from $1.5 billion in 2002 to $7.4 billion 2011.

Conservation groups had been pushing for the re-coupling for years, but the tide began turning last year when they began getting support from fiscal hawks and some farmers’ groups.

The second critical achievement–$1 billion in funding for important habitat programs–involved another reform that looks good for sportsmen.

As Conservationist readers know, the Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve programs have been unfunded since the previous Farm Bill expired.

And due to the hyper-partisan nature of Congress over the last six years, a new the Farm Bill, like most other legislation, was never passed. That combination meant acres that once were being conserved by these bills were left open to development.

So as sportsmen’s advocates worked Congress to renew funding, they also were looking for ways to adapt to what could be the new reality on Capitol Hill.

The result: the wetlands and grasslands programs were consolidated with the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program into the newly created Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, with $1.3 billion in funding.

“They key thing here is that the program is not based on acres, but tied to that dollar amount,” said Dan Wrinn, director of public policy with Ducks Unlimited. “When these programs were acreage-based, meaning there was a limit on how many acres could be enrolled each year, they worked fine as long as a new Farm Bill was passed every five years. But as we have seen recently, Congress just isn’t into passing bills on a regular timetable anymore.

“When that happened and the Farm Bill expired, these programs had zero funding,” said Wrinn. “That means we couldn’t enroll a single acre. So we began thinking, If this is the new normal, we need a different way of getting this done. Now we have it.”

Like the re-coupling of conservation compliance to subsidies, this could end up being a major reform in Farm Bill conservation programs that could result in greater efficacy.

We’ll find out if happier times are truly back when the House and Senate votes over the next few days.