Will Congress be Naughty or Nice to Grassland Wildlife?

After two long years of trying to pass a new Farm Bill—a giant, 5 year piece of legislation that funds everything from food stamps to agriculture subsidies to conservation programs—members of the Farm Bill Conference Committee have assured us that negotiations are going well and that a shiny new five-year Farm Bill is coming our way in January of 2014. The last farm bill, which was passed in 2008, expired this past September, and it is crucial that a new farm bill is passed soon. While we don’t know yet exactly what the final bill will look like, we are optimistic that the new legislation will require that farmers take basic conservation measures to protect soil and wetlands in exchange for receiving crop insurance premium subsidies, and this is good news. However, another important habitat protection provision called Sodsaver is falling through the cracks, largely due to heavy opposition from House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK). This is bad news for grassland birds, which are declining at alarming rates.

Sodsaver will limit subsidies on native grassland converted to crop production. This means that if a farmer chooses to convert native grassland cropland, he/she can’t get the same kinds of subsidies that other farmers would get. Sodsaver is not regulatory; it does not take away a landowner’s choice to plow up native grasslands. It merely ensures that landowners who do so pay for it themselves. When billions of dollars are being cut from the food stamp program in the name of fiscal responsibility, it does not seem right that landowners can still plow up risky marginal land and still receive a full plate of entitlements.

This Upland Sandpiper wants to know, why won't Congress put a national Sodsaver provision in the Farm Bill? Photo: Stephen Rossiter
This Upland Sandpiper wants to know, why won’t Congress put a national Sodsaver provision in the Farm Bill? Photo: Stephen Rossiter
Farm bill negotiators are considering  limiting Sodsaver to the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR). That would be short-sighted and unfair. Though the prairie potholes are a very important ecosystem, other native grasslands are in danger. Pollinators and grassland birds depend on grasslands across the USA , and tend to migrate from Canada to Mexico in search of habitat and breeding ground.

According to USDA data, more than 398,000 acres of grasslands and other valuable wildlife habitat were converted to cropland between 2011 and 2012 . That is about the size of 300,000 football fields. If laid end to end, they would stretch from San Francisco to Washington DC. Analysis of Farm Service Agency (FSA) data shows that 89% of recent conversions occurred outside of the PPR. Particularly, Texas and Florida had a very high number of acres put to the plow (26,395 and 24,961, respectively).

NWF and many other conservation groups have supported a new five-year farm bill because it provides funding for voluntary conservation programs, but it becomes harder to justify doing so when the farm bill also subsidizes conversion of wildlife habitat. Several of my friends, conservationists and fiscal conservatives, have questioned me closely on why our taxpayer dollars fund any kind of agricultural subsidies. I am a strong supporter of farmers, and I think it is important that we provide them a strong safety net; but not at the expense of our natural resources. In the 1930s, massive conversion of grassland to cropland, along with farming of vulnerable lands without conservation practices contributed to the first Dust Bowl. If we lose our grasslands to the plow, we put ourselves at greater risk of incurring Dust Bowl II.

Take Action

Take Action ButtonIt is not too late to let Congress know that you want a strong, national Sodsaver provision in the final farm bill.  Follow this link to send an email or use this handy Twitter tool to tweet members of Congress about Sodsaver.  Representative Frank Lucas (R-OK) especially needs to hear that you are not okay with his strong-arm tactics that pander to landowners and disregard the public good. So be sure to send him a note, especially if you are from his home state of Oklahoma!