Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Farm Bill News From The Bird Community E-Bulletin


The five-year, nearly $310-billion 2008 Farm Bill has finally been hammered out after months of extensions and negotiations in multiple open and closed meetings, chiefly among farm-state lawmakers.

The mainstream media watched the House and Senate pass the bill in early May, only to have it vetoed by President Bush, and then overridden by Congress. Most of the media’s focus was on the level of subsidies to large farmers, the perception (and reality) of “pork,” a new “permanent disaster” program, and nutrition elements. Conservation elements within the Farm Bill were given little serious attention.

That was unfortunate, since the status of the conservation features of the Farm Bill is particularly important for grassland and wetland birds and other wildlife. At the end of this process, the conservation elements for birds were mixed.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) proposed acreage will be lowered from the previous Farm Bill's 39.2 million acres to approximately 32 million acres. This loss is not a positive development for grassland bird conservation, but neither is the fact that CRP has to compete for cropland at a disadvantage in the face of remarkably high commodity prices.

Both the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) and the newer Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) were renewed, but with smaller amounts than in the previous Farm Bill.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) focusing on working lands conservation received meaningful increases in funding. Both CSP and EQIP have been beneficial, but not as proficient in delivering direct benefits to birds and wildlife as some of the other Farm Bill conservation programs.

A creative new Chesapeake Bay Program targeting conservation for the Chesapeake Bay was authorized at $372 million.

There was a two-year extension to tax-deduction incentives for conservation easements on private lands.

And a small Open Fields program to help states enroll private land in programs to public access for wildlife-dependent recreation was authorized at $50 million.

The new “permanent disaster” program, costing an estimated $3.8 billion is expected to encourage farmers to plow marginal lands.

Most disappointing, however, in terms of an innovative suggestion that failed to pass unscathed, was the “Sodsaver” proposal. As we’ve described previously in the E-bulletin, Sodsaver was intended to remove taxpayer financed incentives to cultivate crops on virgin native grasslands. The provisions were originally planned to be mandatory nationwide. Changes to the bill altered the language to apply only to parts of five Prairie Pothole states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota), and the provisions were further weakened in that they are applicable only at the option of those states' individual governors. At least an almost toothless Sodsaver is now on the books, hopefully available for strengthening in future versions of the Farm Bill.

A number of conservation organizations backed final passage of the Farm Bill, sometimes almost grudgingly, while other organizations were neutral, seemingly without a position pro or con. Among the more traditional conservation organizations, the National Wildlife Federation, which had originally supported the bill because it had increased conservation funding, urged its ultimate defeat after seeing changes to grassland and wetland protections that were made behind closed doors, and because of the implications for increased greenhouse gas emissions.

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