Soils photo NRCS USDA/NRCS PHOTO

Key conservation program in legislative limbo

While the Senate farm bill leaves the Conservation Stewardship Program little changed, the House legislation would pretty much gut it.

It has been called by some “the crown jewel” of government farm programs, but the Conservation Stewardship Program — which covers some 72 million acres, and is in such demand it has only been able to fund about a third of the applications from farmers and ranchers — is in something of a legislative limbo. While the Senate farm bill leaves the program little changed, the House legislation would pretty much gut it.

Farm bill conservation programs, in total, have been the largest single source of funding for projects on private lands, providing matching funds to conservation partners to make investments go even further for protecting the nation’s productive lands.

Today’s Conservation Stewardship Program evolved from the 2002 farm bill’s Conservation Security Program, and unlike most farm bill programs that have been centered on production, it helped farmers to carry out projects to conserve soil, promote biodiversity, and expand and improve current projects, as well as beginning new ones.

Despite progress over the past decades, much remains to be done. Soil loss is still a problem, even in the productive Midwest. Water pollution remains a significant problem in many areas. Other conservation measures are needed to maintain and enhance America’s farm and ranch lands.

Some $26.1 billion was included in the 2014 farm bill for conservation funding. The 2018 House bill would combine the Conservation Stewardship Program with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), cutting funding by some $5 billion over 10 years. The Senate bill makes no major cuts to conservation programs.

USDA/NRCS PHOTOCSP image

Aside from the House/Senate differences, there are regional political issues at play, particularly in the House bill, that economists Jonathan Coppess, Benjamin Gramig, Nick Paulson, and Gary Schnitkey, Univeristy of Illinois, and Cal Zulauf, Ohio State University, say disproportionately favors southern and southwest states and cotton, rice, and peanuts.

“This shift in benefits is likely at the expense of Midwestern and Eastern regions,” they write, “… and is a notable concentration of the farm bill’s benefits to one region of the country with an overwhelming partisan affiliation … a troubling situation for the current stalemate that might have long term implications for future farm bills.” (Read their analysis at https://bit.ly/2yuIoEK

Whether the Conservation Stewardship Program survives relatively unscathed, or is chopped to pieces or even eliminated, depends on House and Senate Agriculture Committee members who are negotiating the final version of the 2018 farm bill.

Given that Congress is going to pretty much be missing in action for a good part of what’s left of 2018, thanks to the November elections and holiday recesses, farm bill negotiations may well extend into 2019. But if you have an interest in preserving funding for these important conservation programs, you might make your senators and congressmen aware of your wishes. There is info for contacting senators, representatives, and other government officials at https://bit.ly/1TFDnvM
 

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