By Greg Schildwatcher
The Farm Bill, which authorizes many agricultural, nutritional, and conservation programs, has passed the Senate and a similar version awaits consideration on the House floor. There are several points of good news for sportsmen owing to the coordinated work in Washington among several sportsmen groups including the Boone and Crockett Club.
Farm Bill programs have been central to conservation policy since 1985 when an entire title on conservation was introduced. Farm programs themselves have many effects on conservation too. This bill has become the largest single, regularly renewed program affecting conservation and – along with all other large Federal spending bills – it is also one of the entitlement programs now under scrutiny in reducing the Federal deficit. Overall, the Senate has reduced spending from the previous Farm Bill by $23 billion; the House is cutting by about $35 billion. These cuts will contribute to deficit reduction. In both bills the total cuts include about $6 billion is in the form of reduced dollars for conservation (this represents a 10 percent reduction in conservation spending). This year, the stakes are even higher because very few bills of any kind are moving through Congress during this hard-fought election cycle. Therefore, it is not clear the Farm Bill itself or any other conservation bills will pass, so the Boone and Crockett Club and other sportsmen’s organizations are working on a package approach that will include several other provisions with the Farm Bill.
The main issues are: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), wildlife, grasslands and wetlands, regional partnerships, “Sodsaver”, and eligibility for crop insurance. CRP was capped at 32 million acres in the last Farm Bill and this year is headed toward further reductions in order to control costs and ensure that lands staying in the program are the highest-priority conservation lands. The program will be phased down to 25 million acres in 2017. A new provision will enroll up to 2 million acres in grasslands, a provision that will significantly benefit the West and the Prairie Pothole region. Sodsaver and eligibility for crop insurance are both means of ensuring that recipients of Federal farming assistances are not at the same time reversing conservation interests: sodsaver prohibits turning native grasslands and eligibility rules require compliance with all conservation practices.
The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which was created by B&C members and has helped install projects on 6,586,955 acres under 37,547 contracts, will be consolidated with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, as the “Wildlife Habitat Incentives Practices.” The Grassland Reserve Program and the Wetland Reserve Program will be consolidated in an “Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.” A Regional Partnerships program is created that will support wildlife habitat projects in a specific area or region. It also authorizes a pilot program to eradicate feral swine.
Sportsmen attempted with the help of Senators John Tester (D-MT) and John Thune (R-SD) to add to the Farm Bill a package of other sportsmen bills that we have been pushing. The amendment that would have added these, however, was ruled out of order as too far outside the purpose of the bill (this was owing to a larger problem of many so-called “non-germane” amendments being added to the bill). There may be a chance to renew the effort for this package as the House considers its version of the Farm Bill. Some of the issues covered by the package amendment include B&C Club priorities such as: reauthorization of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the Making Public Lands Public Access Act, the Target Practice and Marksmanship Training Support Act, the Permanent Electronic Duck Stamp Act, and the Hunting, Fishing and Recreational Shooting Protection Act.
There is also a provision in both bills that would promote research into wildlife diseases such as brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis that also affect livestock. This new attention to disease is a victory for the sportsmen community’s renewed activities on these issues.
Like many bills, while this one is not perfect, it is a bill that maintains a strong focus on conservation and forestry while contributing to deficit reduction, and therefore worthy of passage. The current programs expire September 30, so pressure is mounting.
The difficulty in keeping the Farm Bill moving toward passage is a reminder of how valuable it is that sportsmen step forward and contact their legislators and remind them of the importance of conservation spending. Clearly, deficit reduction is important and the proposed Farm Bill reflects a fair share in this process.