The 2018 Farm Bill became law in December 2018 after being signed by President Donald Trump. This bill contains a strong Conservation Title that benefits fish and wildlife conservation as well as sportsmen’s access.
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.” The Farm Bill is widely recognized for the important role it plays in supporting critical farm safety net programs like crop insurance and price loss coverage, and for its support for nutrition through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps). The bipartisan Farm Bill’s investments in critical programs that support conservation, particularly through voluntary, incentive-based programs available to private landowners, enhances habitat quality for a variety of culturally and economically important game species (and many important non-game species), and provides enhances opportunities for the hunters and anglers across the United States who pursue them.
Some of the key conservation provisions within the Farm Bill typically include:
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
The original Farm Bill conservation program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) represents one of the most effective private lands conservation programs in the world. Featuring a variety of subprograms and pilots, CRP is typically characterized by its conversion from commodity production to a conservation practice designed to benefit soil health, water quality, and wildlife habitat. In exchange for forgoing commodity revenue on enrolled acres, participating landowners receive annual payments for their conservation efforts.
CRP is currently divided into three primary options. General CRP is the classic option in which whole fields are transitioned from commodity productions to conservation practices in exchange for rental payments. General CRP is enrolled on a competitive basis during enrollment periods in which landowners’ offers are graded via an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI). For landowners interested in enrolling a subset of a field with particularly high conservation value, Continuous CRP may be a better opportunity. Here, acres that address a key conservation priority are able to apply for this non-competitive option at any time of year. Within Continuous CRP is the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program which allows landowners to enroll on a continuous basis to meet identified wildlife habitat needs. Finally, the fastest growing subprogram is Grasslands CRP where landowners enroll existing grasslands to prevent their conversion. With Grasslands CRP, landowners receive smaller payments but retain grazing and haying opportunities while conserving critical grassland communities.
Voluntary Public Access – Habitat Incentives Program (VPA-HIP)
With wildlife enthusiasts in mind, the Voluntary Public Access – Habitat Incentives Program (VPA-HIP) provides state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies the resources needed to develop their own public access to private lands programs. Boasting significant popularity among both participating landowners and public access users, VPA-HIP represents a win-win for landowners and sportsmen and women.
Since its inception as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, VPA-HIP remains the only federal program designed to improve access and opportunities for wildlife-dependent recreation on private lands. For hunters, anglers, and wildlife viewers, this represents a significant opportunity to address one of the largest challenges facing our communities today: quality access.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
Designed with long-term benefits in mind, the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) represents a bold strategy in the conservation of both America’s working farms and our nation’s wetlands. Separated into Agricultural Land Easements (ALE) and Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE).
For sportsmen and women, the wetland restoration and management advanced through WRE (formerly known as the Wetland Reserve Program) represent some of the most important contributions to waterfowl habitat across the nation. By partnering with private landowners on a voluntary basis, WREs have restored many of the most vulnerable and commonly converted systems in our country, reviving the critical habitat and ecosystems services that wetlands provide.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP)
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is a nationally competitive funding opportunity originally authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill that has become a staple of USDA-NRCS conservation work. Built on collaboration, RCPP allows public-private partnerships to drive voluntary conservation on private lands through one of two funding pools: 1) state/multistate projects or 2) projects that address one of the eight geographically defined ‘Critical Conservation Areas’. Lead partners must have the organizational capacity and expertise to manage the partnership and to evaluate a project’s conservation impact and results. Through RCPP, partners leverage their own contributions alongside financial and technical assistance available from NRCS to establish projects designed to meet regional conservation needs. Once agreed upon with USDA-NRCS, partners then work with landowners on a voluntary basis to implement conservation practices on private lands in support of each project’s identified resource concerns. Eligible conservation activities that can be implemented by farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners include: land management, land improvement, land restoration, land rentals, easements, or public works/watershed practices.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) serves as one of the foundational conservation programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Consisting of technical and financial assistance opportunities, NRCS works one-on-one with landowners to address natural resource conservation needs through detailed plans and a suite of practices supported by EQIP on our nation’s private, working lands.
Conservation practices implemented through EQIP are often designed to address very specific resource needs, including improving soil health and water quality, mitigation against environmental stressors, and, most importantly for sportsmen and women, creating and improving wildlife habitat. As it relates to wildlife habitat efforts, EQIP is one of the most common avenues through which NRCS accomplishes the goals of Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW). Through WLFW, participating landowners receive resources, both financial and technical assistance, and regulatory assurances designed to protect their working operations in exchange for supporting habitat for identified species that are at risk of future listing through the Endangered Species Act.
A sub-program of EQIP that has been used to stimulate the development and adoption of new tools, approaches, and technologies to further natural resource conservation on private lands is the Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) program. CIG consists of both a national classic funding opportunity and an on-farm trials funding opportunity. Through each of the CIG programs, partners are able to leverage NRCS funding to provide incentive payments and technical assistance to help producers adopt and evaluate new or innovative science-based conservation approaches to meet natural resource concerns. Examples include on-farm demonstrations, pilot projects, and testing of new technology.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
The largest of the Farm Bill’s conservation investments, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) offers financial and technical assistance to landowners to enhance their existing conservation efforts on their working lands. This program is limited to landowners already taking steps to promote conservation on their working lands. Through CSP, landowners voluntarily partner with NRCS to develop a conservation plan designed to enhance existing conservation efforts through additional practices. In exchange, participating landowners receive annual payments for the implementation of these practices.
Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP)
Administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Healthy Forests Reserve Program (HFRP) provides financial assistance for private landowners to restore, conserve, and enhance forest resources on their lands. Designed to help promote the recovery of species listed under the Endangered Species Act, improve biodiversity, and enhance carbon sequestration, landowners can voluntarily convey permanent or 30-year conservation easements, or landowners can enter ten-year cost share agreements for implementing specific conservation actions. For sportsmen and women, many of the conservation actions supported through HFRP also provide habitat benefits for a host of important game species in addition to the programs benefits for listed species.
Points of Interest
- The Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, as we know it today, was first incorporated in 1985 with the establishment of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). CRP was originally designed to address soil health and water quality challenges on highly erodible agricultural lands, and the program’s purpose has since expanded to include wildlife habitat after realizing the benefits that program practices can have for wildlife who inhabit enrolled acres.
- Since its initial inclusion, the Voluntary Public Access – Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) has provided thousands of acres of public access opportunities on private lands across the nation and maintains high levels of satisfaction among participating landowners and sportsmen and women.
- Other Farm Bill conservation and forestry programs provide tremendous benefits to fish and wildlife populations at local, landscape, and national levels.
- The 2018 Farm Bill officially expired on September 30, 2023, and Congress continues discussions surrounding the development of the legislation’s next reauthorization.
- Members of the sporting-conservation community, often in close collaboration, are working hard to ensure robust investments in conservation and forestry programs and practices in the next iteration of the Farm Bill.
State legislators, state fish and wildlife agency officials, and members of the sporting-conservation community are encouraged to remain informed as it relates to the current and future status of the Farm Bill. Particularly during reauthorization periods during which Congress is drafting the next iteration of the legislation, input from engaged stakeholders will maintain and grow support for the robust investments housed within the Farm Bill’s Conservation and Forestry titles. During the periods following reauthorization, it is important for stakeholders to remain engaged in their support for the implementation of these critical programs while celebrating the benefits that they provide for fish and wildlife habitat and opportunities for sportsmen and women.