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New Farm Bill Includes Continued Conservation Measures

Chris Merkord

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The 2014 farm bill appeals to agencies and environmental groups alike, encouraging and assisting farmers to employ conservation practices. (Credit: Keith Weller, USDA)

The 2014 farm bill appeals to agencies and environmental groups alike, encouraging and assisting farmers to employ conservation practices. (Credit: Keith Weller, USDA)

Congress gave final approval Tuesday to the new five-year farm bill, which includes cutbacks on federal nutrition assistance, reauthorization of agricultural subsidies, and streamlining of rural conservation and energy programs.

The provisions come as a relief to many conservation groups who successfully advocated for the reattachment of conservation measures to federal subsidies for crop insurance. Wildlife organizations were also pleased with the “sodsaver” provision, which would limit subsidies for newly converted land in six states to discourage the development of grasslands into farmland (although many groups had pushed for a national Sodsaver program).

Other provisions would prevent soil erosion and conserve wetlands in an effort to protect wildlife and water quality. Overall, the bill would consolidate 23 conservation programs down to 13 and provide $57 billion in conservation funding, with $6 billion in conservation spending cuts. This will be the first decrease in conservation funding by a farm bill since the inclusion of conservation incentives in 1985.

Key conservation incentive programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) are to continue with maximum allotted acres reduced over time but with an increase in payment limitations to farmers. Both the CRP, which converts sensitive agricultural land to healthy habitat, and the CSP, which distributes land use payments in proportion to environmental benefit production, have been effective in encouraging environmentally friendly farming practices.

The Farmland Protection Program, Grassland Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and Wildlife Incentive Program will be consolidated under the umbrella Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, with transition funding for current contracts and easements. Also, the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) would be consolidated under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) as part of streamlining while providing farmers assistance to improve wildlife habitat on working lands.

Current priority designations for the Chesapeake Bay Region, Great Lakes Region, and Long Island Sound Region would be removed, although the Secretary would retain the authority to designate future conservation priority areas. Future regional initiatives and the Agriculture Water Enhancement Program will be consolidated into the Regional Conservation Partnership Initiative for investment in local conservation projects. The U.S. Forest Service would also benefit from increased authority in stewardship contracting and project creation to handle wildfires and insect or disease outbreaks.

One of the farm bill’s major changes is eliminating direct payments to farmers and replacing the benefit with either a revenue insurance program or assistance when markets fall below a designated price level. The food stamp program would also receive $8 billion less over the next decade — part of a bipartisan compromise to cut $23 billion from the federal budget.

Sources: E&E News PM (January 28, 2014), E&E Daily (January 28, 2014, January 29, 2014), Greenwire (January 29, 2014), House of Representatives Conference Report, ProAg Title II Statement, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (January 31, 2014)

This article was automatically imported from The Wildlife Society's policy news feed.

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