Why Getting Millions For Rice Farmers Is Good For Sportsmen

This just in: The federal government is going to spend $10 million helping rice farmers increase productivity in this era of water shortages.

You may be wondering why this conservation news is relevant to sportsmen. Let me count the ways:

1) A recent study showed that the nation's three million acres of rice fields are an important wintering habitat for North America's waterfowl populations.

2) America’s wetlands—the critical habitat for waterfowl—continue to be lost at fatal rates for public duck hunting.

3) This $10 million grant for private landowners was pushed through Congress with steady and loud support from the wildlife conservation community, especially Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.

4) The number of hunters as a percentage of the nation’s population will only continue to fall in the years ahead.

Those first two reasons are obvious self-interest motivators for sportsmen. We know that, like the critters we pursue, our future is entirely dependent on habitat. The fewer quality acres fish and game have to live and thrive on, the less opportunity we’ll have to hunt and fish. (In fact, their future is brighter than ours, because habitat can shrink to a level high enough to support their existence, but too low to allow hunting or fishing.)

So the idea of helping farmers maintain those three million acres of rice is an obvious win for sportsmen—and the economy.

But it’s Nos. 3 and 4 that sportsmen should be paying even closer attention to for this important, if disappointing, reason: As the size of our slice in the American population pie gets ever slimmer, so does our ability to influence government policies regulating our remaining habitats. That has been obvious in the last few sessions of Congress.

That means sportsmen need allies, and plenty of them.

I would prefer to live in a country where environmental protection and responsible stewardship of fish, wildlife, and the natural world would be considered a bedrock principle. I can remember a time when the nation protected those values because it was the right thing to do for us and for future generations—even if it cost each of us a little money.

But as a journalist covering those efforts for more than 40 years, I can’t ignore the sad truth about most politicians (and most of the people they represent) controlling those concerns in 2015 America. They have only one bedrock principle: profit. So, if we can’t show an economic benefit of those values to people other than us, they won’t care about our issues.

That’s why the sportsmen’s conservation community wisely decided to join hands with the wider outdoors sporting groups in the last few years. Together we are a much larger number with a much greater economic impact.

But to many of those politicians and voters, our larger group still comes from the same community: We’re all just people who want to “play” with nature. And they will not let our play—no matter how valuable—get in the way of people using land and water to produce products.

So we need to show those producers that we can be valuable allies.

In fact, that is the catalyst behind the conservation programs in the Farm Bill, a suite of initiatives generally considered to have had the greatest impact on fish and wildlife populations

And it's the same logic that is behind the Sage Grouse Initiative, the great effort of sportsmen's conservation groups working with landowners to sustain the western sage grouse in the face of Endangered Species listings.

This all brings us to the $10 million grants recently approved under the "Rice Stewardship Partnership - Sustaining the Future of Rice."

The grants are made possible through the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which streamlines the efforts of four previous conservation programs into one. It's made possible through the Farm Bill.

The grants will provide funding to improve the use of water, which can lower the costs and improve the productivity of rice farmers.

“The more quality rice acres we have, the better that is for waterfowl,” said Scott Manley of Ducks Unlimited.

Yes, these funds will be spent on private lands. And, yes, it doesn’t mean they have to open their property to public hunting. But it helps sportsmen in two ways:

More habitat means more ducks everywhere.

And, just as importantly, we have another ally in the battle to save habitat.