Why Does NWF care about the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill is the largest federal investment in private lands conservation, providing about $6 billion annually for farmers, ranchers, and foresters to protect or restore their lands and water. Primarily flowing through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), this benefits wildlife, water, the climate, and communities. This expansive bill, passed approximately every five years, also funds nutrition, research, rural development, and more. But why does National Wildlife Federation care about the “Farm” Bill?

A small bird perches on a tall plant in the middle of an agricultural field.
Credit: Marcie Hebert/USFWS

More than half of the United States is made up of farms, ranches, and forests, called “working lands.” These lands are home to wildlife and affect waterways and ecosystems. Since National Wildlife Federation advocates for practices and policies that benefit wildlife habitats and a healthy, sustainable environment, the Farm Bill is a huge opportunity for wildlife!

Since 1985, NWF has worked diligently to advocate for strong conservation programs in the Farm Bill. These voluntary, incentive-based programs provide financial and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to adopt practices that will protect wildlife habitat, clean water, build healthy soil, and fight climate change, all while improving their bottom line. 

In 2022, the historic Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) invested about $20 billion into climate-smart conservation typically funded through the Farm Bill. This new funding was a huge win for farmers who want to participate in NRCS programs, which awarded more contracts in 2023 than ever before. Despite the increase in participation and funding, the amount of financial assistance still doesn’t meet the needs of those who want to participate. In 2023, USDA could only fund 26% of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) applications from farmers and ranchers! That’s why National Wildlife Federation is working hard to protect this funding in the next Farm Bill.

Check out NWF’s Farm Bill Platform.

2018 Farm Bill – A Bipartisan Exercise that Benefits Wildlife

Historically, the Farm Bill has been a bipartisan exercise, which held true for the 2018 Farm Bill. The 2018 Farm Bill was passed in the House with 182 Republican votes and 187 Democratic votes. Similarly, the bill was passed in the Senate with 38 Republican votes and 47 Democratic votes, demonstrating strong support from both parties.

There were many wins for wildlife conservation in the 2018 Farm Bill. One important win was that EQIP had the highest percentage of money set aside for wildlife practices ever, 10%. That is about $175-200 million per year going to practices that benefit wildlife.

USDA’s Conservation Programs – Alphabet Soup!

EQIP, CSP, ACEP, CRP, WRE what does it all mean? These acronyms make big headlines when reading about conservation in the Farm Bill. These programs provide financial and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, and landowners to help protect wildlife species, maintain healthy waterways and soil, and preserve habitats. Farmers are highly supportive of these voluntary programs with a recent poll showing that 74 percent of farmers agree there should be more conservation funding.

EQIP and CSP are the two largest working lands programs, accounting for over half of all conservation funding in the Farm Bill. Using locally led feedback they are crucial for initiatives like Working Lands for Wildlife. In 2023, USDA conservation practices were applied on over 53 million acres.

A large gray-white and blue bird begins to take flight
Hundreds of species depend on wetlands for survival, including birds like the great blue heron pictured above, mammals, fish, and insects. Credit: Ralph Gaines

The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) helps landowners preserve wetland and agricultural land, and has supported the protection of almost 500,000 acres since 2014. Grassland easements are especially significant as North American Grasslands are one of the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems

Wetland Reserve Easements (WRE) aid in restoring wetlands that provide many ecological benefits, from purifying water to providing habitat for hundreds of fish and wildlife species. Since the program began in 1990, landowners have enrolled and restored nearly 2.9 million acres of wetlands. Additionally, the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership (WREP) is a vital tool for restoring high-priority wetlands.

Finally, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), is one of the most important programs for conserving wildlife habitat. CRP focuses on environmentally sensitive land to benefit water, soil, and wildlife. Land enrolled in 2023 brought the total number of acres involved in CRP enrollments to 24.8 million acres.

Working Lands and Wildlife Initiatives in the Farm Bill

Two birds can be seen: one brown bird with speckled feathers and an orange patch on its heads. The other has the same feathers but no orange patch on its head.
The lesser prairie chicken Initiative is helping to preserve important grassland habitat that benefits many species. Credit: Lauren Ames

One of the significant NRCS wildlife initiatives is the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) framework. WLFW localizes species needs in targeted landscapes by prioritizing financial and technical assistance to producers who are making vital habitat improvements. WLFW is active in 48 states and is a successful model for wildlife conservation on working lands. Since its inception in 2010, over 8,400 producers have participated in the WLFW initiative, conserving nearly 12 million acres of wildlife habitat.

More than a dozen species are targeted in WLFW, including the iconic lesser prairie chicken. Lesser prairie chickens are found in prairie and grassland ecosystems that largely overlap with agricultural land in Great Plains states. Through the Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative, USDA has partnered with 915 ranchers to conserve over 1 million acres of prairie and grassland habitat in the Southern Great Plains. 

Across the U.S., private lands are home to two-thirds of species listed under the Endangered Species Act. That’s why the Farm Bill’s funding is so crucial — it helps protect not only these at-risk species, but also the hundreds of others that share their habitat. Let’s work together to ensure the continued success of Farm Bill conservation programs and the protection of our nation’s wildlife.

You can read more about the wildlife species the WLFW program is working to protect here.

Lend Your Voice! Tell Congress to Pass a Wildlife-Friendly Farm Bill!

Congress is working to introduce a Farm Bill soon, but questions remain about how climate-smart conservation funding from IRA should be handled. Please join National Wildlife Federation in calling for a wildlife-friendly, bipartisan Farm Bill that meets the needs of farmers, ranchers, private landowners, and the communities they live in by including permanent climate-smart IRA conservation funding in the next Farm Bill.

Stay Tuned for Farm Fresh Updates – What’s Coming Next

A brown bird with black and cream-colored stripes near its eyes perches on a tree branch.
The newly announced Bobwhite Conservation Initiative joins the many successful WLFW initiatives. Credit: Bob Zeller

Are you intrigued and want to learn more? Well then, we have great news! This is the first of a series of blogs where we will dig into Farm Bill conservation programs. A few of the topics we will be turning up the topsoil on include:

  • The Inflation Reduction Act: Its 2023 impact and what it could mean for the future 
  • Equity at the U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • Climate-Smart Forestry and Agriculture 
  • And more to come!