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Effects of U.S. Farm Bill on bird conservation

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From the Birding Community E-bulletin, February 2014:


In late January, House and Senate negotiators released a long-awaited Farm Bill agreement designed to extend agriculture programs for the next half decade. While the general media concentrated on the issues of agricultural subsidies and slashes in food stamps, all very important concerns, there was considerably less interest in the conservation issues in the Farm Bill.


The legislation is projected to cost about $950 billion over the next decade, with an estimated $60 billion covering core conservation programs.


To many, the Farm Bill had for the past few years represented an example of the dysfunction that is now Washington DC, but what emerged from negotiators offered some optimism for conservation issues, including bird concerns.


A few programs and approaches deserve description here, including conservation compliance, sodsaver, and CRP-related programs.


Conservation compliance will require farmers and ranchers to abide by essential conservation measures in exchange for any federal subsidies for crop insurance on highly erodible land and wetlands. This provision was removed from the Farm Bill 18 years ago, and it is significant that it was re-attached. Landowners can basically do much of what they want on their own lands, but now they can't always ask for federal assistance!


The Farm Bill also included sodsaver, a provision limiting crop insurance subsidies for the first few years in areas where land is newly converted to cropland. This is meant to discourage farmers from tilling 10,000-year-old native grasslands.


Although conservation groups wanted to have the program apply across the nation, the Farm Bill would limit sodsaver to six Northern Great Plains states: Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The previous Farm Bill had a sodsaver provision that was optional, with state governors having the choice to opt-in. Not one did. This time there is no option. The results should be significant for waterfowl, certain upland gamebirds, and a suite of grassland songbirds that are in serious trouble.


Any expansion of sodsaver to the rest of the country will have to await the next Farm Bill.


Finally for us, other conservation programs - 23 in all - are consolidating into 13 programs, also cutting $6 billion over the next decade. For example, the well-known Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is reduced from 32 million acres to 24 million acres by FY18. Other similar conservation programs - like WHIP, GRP, and WRP - are part of consolidation, all the while generally honoring the traditions of the efforts and targeted outcomes.


The results aren't perfect, but they are better than many conservationists had expected. "It was worth the wait to get a Farm Bill that will help protect our nation's land, water, and wildlife," said Julie Sibbing, senior director of agriculture and forestry programs for the National Wildlife Federation.


The Farm Bill compromise passed the House of Representatives last month, while awaiting a quick positive vote in the Senate and almost immediate Presidential signing.

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