The most recent Farm Bill, also known as the Agricultural Act of 2014, was passed by Congress in February 2014. Through the efforts of numerous Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus (CSC) members, the 2014 Farm Bill provided several protections for fish and wildlife habitat and benefits to hunters and anglers. Of particular note, the consolidation of conservation easement programs into the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, renewal of the Conservation Reserve Program, renewal of wetlands protections by re-coupling crop insurance and conservation compliance, the creation of a Sodsaver program to protect the nation’s grasslands, and the expansion of public access to private lands through the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. With the current Farm Bill due to expire in September 2018, efforts to reauthorize this important legislation have begun. CSF and CSC members are again working to implement strong measures to safeguard conservation and access opportunities for sportsmen and women.
Every five years, Congress passes a bundle of legislation that sets national agriculture, nutrition, forestry, and conservation policy, commonly referred to as the "Farm Bill." A long-standing priority of the CSC, the bipartisan Farm Bill enhances and strengthens vital policies important to hunters and anglers across the United States. Working alongside the CSC, CSF staff host Breakfast Briefings and other policy events focused on the Farm Bill in the 115th Congress and the important suite of programs associated with the legislation that support soil, water, and fish and wildlife conservation on America’s farms, ranches, and forests. Some of the key conservation provisions contained in the Farm Bill include:
Renewed Wetland Protections
The 1996 Farm bill de-coupled conservation compliance from federal crop insurance. This policy, reinstituted in 2014, satisfies both the goals of providing a safety net for the nation’s farmers along with conserving habitat for fish and wildlife. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates this policy has saved over 3 million acres of wetlands and reduces nearly 300 million tons of soil erosion each year. Restoring the relationship between conservation and crop insurance generates widespread benefits beyond the agriculture and conservation communities. However, there is concern that the conservation requirements to be eligible for crop insurance is not being effectively enforced, and this provision may need additional guidance in the next iteration of the Farm Bill.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
The continental United States has lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands. This rapid decline of wetland habitat in the United States presents a serious challenge to conservation. Historically, the Farm Bill has used a series of conservation easement programs to combat this issue. In 2014, several of these programs were combined to create the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) which is now the largest federal wetlands conservation program. Farmers are given the opportunity to enroll marginal cropland in conservation easement programs. Similar to conservation compliance, ACEPs benefits are widely distributed through reducing flood damage and conserving fish and wildlife habitat.
Conservation Reserve Program
The Conservation Reserve Program administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency provides farmers an opportunity to re-allocate marginal farmland towards conservation. The program offers incentives in the form of annual rent payments and cost-sharing. Notably, CRP is credited with adding 25.7 million ducks to the fall migration from 1992-2003. Waterfowl numbers have continued to rise with breeding numbers for 2016 approaching 50 million ducks. Despite the observed benefits to wildlife, the 2014 Farm Bill decreased the statutory mandated acreage cap from 32 million acres to 24 million acres over five years. The sportsmen’s community would like to see that cap increased in the next Farm Bill, as there are far more applications for CRP enrollment than available funds.
The Prairie Pothole Region, an area crucial to migratory waterfowl and other wildlife, has experienced a rate of grassland loss outpacing protection by at least 500 percent. Key among the 2014 provisions of the Farm Bill, the Sodsaver provision combats the grassland conversion to farmland in the Prairie Pothole Region in Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Sodsaver provision does not outlaw grassland conversion; however, it eliminates half of the insurance premium subsidies available to farmers during the four years following conversion. This way, farmers have less of an incentive to break ground on native sod when crop prices rise and taxpayers bear less of the insurance risk on this land.
Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program
First authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, the voluntary public access and habitat incentive program (VPA-HIP) is a competitive grants program that helps state and tribal governments increase public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, and other wildlife dependent recreation activities. Grants provided through VPA-HIP help states start or expand public access to private lands programs, conserve and improve public habitat, and increase opportunities for hunting and angling.
The effort to reauthorize the Farm Bill is underway, as several ideas for improving this important legislation have already been suggested through various marker bills, including:
- Conservation Program Improvement Act (S.909) – Introduced by CSC member Senator John Thune (SD), the bill increases CRP Acreage cap to 30 million acres, sets state acreage targets, and expands allowable vegetative management practices on CRP lands.
- American Prairie Conservation Act (H.R.3939/S.1913) – Introduced by CSC members Senator John Thune (SD), Senator Amy Koblachur (MN), Senator Mike Rounds (SD), Senator Michael Bennet (CO), Representative Kristi Noem (SD), and Representative Tim Walz (MN) in October 2017, the bill expands the Sodsaver program nationwide and closes a loophole in the current Sodsaver rules.
- Voluntary Public Access Improvement Act (S.2243) – Introduced by CSC members Senator Steve Daines (MT) and Senator Michael Bennet (CO) in December 2017, the bill reauthorizes VPA-HIP at $150 million over five years.
Additionally, CSF hosted a Breakfast Briefing on June 28, 2017, where hunting conservation organizations spoke to the successes and shortcomings of the 2014 Farm Bill, and provided their thoughts on how to improve upon the last version of the bill. CSF and the CSC continue to work with the sportsmen’s community to ensure that essential conservation provisions are included in the 2018 Farm Bill.
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