On July 12, the House Agriculture Committee released its version of the 2012 Farm Bill and voted to send the $960 billion legislation to the House floor for debate. The bill would cut conservation programs by $6.1 billion over the next 10 years, half of which are wildlife programs, partly by consolidating 23 current programs to 13.
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to establish grass or trees on marginal cropland, would be reduced by 7 million acres, but some of the savings would be used to aid other conservation programs that have no baseline funding, like wetland easements. The conservation community, recognizing the tough budget climate in Congress, was pleased that deeper cuts were not imposed.
The Senate version, passed earlier this month, includes similar consolidations of conservation programs, but with some important differences in the implications for wildlife. The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) would be eliminated under both the Senate and House bills. Wildlife funding would still be available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), but while the Senate would require at least 5% of funding to go to wildlife projects, the House sets a ceiling of 5% of EQIP funding for such projects.
Additionally, the new Agricultural Conservation Easement program, which combines wetland easements, the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and Farmland Program, could be problematic for wildlife. Julie Sibbing, Director of Agriculture and Forestry Programs for National Wildlife Federation, explained that the new program would require a minimum of 40% of funds in the first 3 years to go to agricultural easements and 50% for the following 2 years, but not require a minimum amount to go to grassland or wetland easements.
The House Committee’s bill also omits a significant amendment included in the Senate bill that ties eligibility of farmers and ranchers to receive federal crop insurance subsidies to compliance with certain conservation standards. Many conservation organizations are concerned about the lack of this requirement in the House version, since it would incentivize destruction of wetlands and unsustainable farming of erosion-prone soils.
Another disappointment to conservation groups is the House bill’s scaled back “Sodsaver” provision, to protect grasslands by reducing crop insurance premiums for those who place native prairie into production. While the Senate bill includes a nationwide Sodsaver provision, the House committee’s bill limits the geographic scope to the Prairie Pothole region, which encompasses parts of five states.
This provision is of particular concern to many since grasslands are the most threatened ecosystem in the U.S. and provide vital habitat and breeding grounds for a vast array of wildlife. Congressman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, expressed opposition to a nationwide Sodsaver provision, despite the fact that the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), a species in decline that depends on grasslands in his state, is slated to be listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, which would create a larger regulatory burden on landowners with this habitat.
In spite of these worrisome cuts to programs to aid wildlife, some positive and important provisions were included in the draft Farm Bills from both chambers of Congress, such as reauthorization of the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentives Program which provides grants to States and tribal governments to encourage private farm, ranch, and forest land owners to voluntarily make land available to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation under programs administered by those governments.
The House has yet to schedule a full floor debate for the bill, but with the current Farm Bill set to expire on September 30, lawmakers are feeling pressure to pass a new Farm Bill before then.
Sources: E&E Publishing (Greenwire, July 13, 2012), High Country News (July 16, 2012), Ammoland (July 12, 2012), Oklahoma Farm Report (July 12, 2012), Defenders of Wildlife, National Geographic, Colorado DNR, Ecosystem Marketplace (July 11, 2012), Senator John Thune (June 21, 2012), Farm Futures (July 6, 2012), Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 12, 2012)