The Farm Bill: An Opportunity for Conservation Gold

Last month, American athletes competed for gold in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Through grit, determination, and a healthy support network, many of our Olympians were successful, including Chloe Kim, Shaun White, the women’s hockey team, and the men’s curling team. In many ways, conservation legislation can be similar to Olympic athletics, with smaller bills/events occurring several times a year, while the big show is the Farm Bill every 4-5 years. As debate around the Farm Bill heats up, the National Wildlife Federation is working to ensure that wildlife wins gold this year.

The Farm Bill covers crop insurance, agricultural research, conservation, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as well as countless other programs that affect our agriculture sector and wildlife. The last time a Farm Bill was passed by Congress was in 2014, and many of that bill’s provisions will soon expire. If a Farm Bill is not passed by the time these provisions expire, we will revert to the Agricultural Act of 1949. Because of this, discussions are ramping up for the next iteration of the Farm Bill, which may hit the floor as soon as next month. In many ways, the Farm Bill hearkens back to a bygone legislative era, when Democratic and Republican lawmakers worked together to create a bill that can help people in all areas of the country. Rural lawmakers team up with urban lawmakers to address topics such as crop insurance and nutrition to best serve their constituents. In most media narratives of the bill, it is this unlikely alliance that grabs the headlines. However, there is a third leg of the Farm Bill is that has the potential to unite all Americans. This leg is conservation.

Believe it or not, the Farm Bill is the largest single federal source of conservation funding for private land. Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) were created and funded through Farm Bills in the past, and have made great progress in conserving and preserving our grasslands, waterways, and wildlife species.

Helping Bears on the Bayou

One species that has benefitted incredibly from Farm Bill conservation programs is the Louisiana black bear. This species, which also resides in parts of Texas and Mississippi, was facing drastically depleted numbers in the 1950’s, mostly due to fragmented, tiny parcels of habitat. A partnership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state wildlife agencies and private landowners worked to restore these populations. Using the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) – two conservation programs created by previous Farm Bills- private landowners protected and restored wetland areas and natural vegetation, preserving the habitat for Louisiana black bears and other species.

Black Bear Cubs_Photo Credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

Millions of acres of habitat across the country is conserved through CRP, which pays landowners annual rental payments in exchange for planting perennial non-crop species that create habitat for wildlife, build soil health, and improve water quality, with an emphasis on highly erodible land on hills and along streams, as well as areas with poor soil. CRP is among the most effective and popular USDA programs, enrolling around 24 million acres in 2016. Increasing the amount of acres in CRP would provide more opportunities for wildlife and landowners alike to thrive.   

Keeping our Prairies Pristine

Despite the incredible successes past Farm Bills have helped create, there is still quite a bit of work left to be done. For example, while there is currently a “sodsaver” provision that encourages farmers to keep grasslands intact in the upper Great Plains, there is currently no nationwide provision that does the same. Sodsaver works by reducing the amount of taxpayer-funded subsidies for crop insurance premiums that landowners can get if they choose to convert prairie to cropland. Below is a video outlining an NWF-supported bill, the American Prairie Conservation Act, which creates a much-needed nationwide sodsaver provision. Please contact your senators and representatives about this bill!    

Aligning Our Goals with Crop Insurance

Another area for improvement within the Farm Bill is crop insurance. Currently, crop insurance serves as a safety net for farmers so that our nation’s food supply can remain steady and our farmers can maintain their way of life. Because so much land is owned and worked by farmers who receive federally-backed crop insurance, there is opportunity here to promote better conservation practices. For instance, Congress could make alterations to the current insurance program to make it easier for more farmers to plant cover crops. Currently, there are few incentives and many barriers to planting cover crops, and legislative action could change this and help keep our nation’s rich soil in the ground.

There are many more programs funded by the Farm Bill that help our cherished wildlife species. These programs keep our lakes, rivers, and streams clear and clean. They encourage landowners to be land stewards. Perhaps most importantly, they give Americans the opportunity to contribute to a healthy natural world that in turn keeps us healthy. The Farm Bill’s conservation programs currently do much good, and this bill offers an opportunity to do even more. In this year’s Farm Bill, the National Wildlife Federation urges Congress to maintain or increase funding for vital conservation programs that help both wildlife and farmers. Believe it or not, with the Farm Bill, Congress has the opportunity to be like our Olympians. Congress should not settle for good – it should strive for greatness. Read more about our priorities in our platform.

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