You probably know about the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, because you’ve hunted on CRP lands. And if you live anywhere near farm country, it’s no wonder—CRP essentially incentivizes farmers to cultivate wildlife on lands that would be less productive for crops. Ducks, deer, pheasants, sage grouse, and many other game species have found habitat and forage in farm country thanks to CRP. Since its creation 30 years ago, CRP has been one of the nation’s most important programs for hunters and wildlife—and for farmers.
CRP lands can have many other benefits, too. If you follow the news, you’ll recognize that there’s a need to protect water quality from agricultural runoff; provide habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies; prevent soil erosion and enhance soil health; mitigate the impact of floods and drought; and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. CRP lands do all of that and more. For the breadth and depth of its achievements, CRP is highly cost-effective, making up just a fraction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget.
And yet, 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, the USDA has not taken the steps needed to maximize this critical and versatile program.
Some background: About once every five years, through the Farm Bill, Congress can adjust the number of acres that America’s farmers may enroll in CRP. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress established acreage caps that are progressively lower each year through 2018, scaling way down from 32 million to 24 million acres. This was in reaction to an ever-tighter federal budget (the USDA had less financial support available for farmers) and record-high prices for commodity crops like corn and soybeans (farmers were eager to plant more to earn more, rather than leave land unplanted for conservation purposes).
The 2014 Farm Bill makes it possible for farmers to enroll up to 26 million acres in CRP this year, but there are only 24 million acres currently enrolled, and enrollment could sink as low as 22 million acres by September—far below the allowed cap, and a full 10 million acres below 2013’s maximum. The USDA has neither taken meaningful action to close the gap, nor finished updating the CRP regulations, despite a solid effort to implement the rest of the Farm Bill’s 450 provisions over the last 15 months.
As we look ahead to the next Farm Bill, this seeming ambivalence at the USDA sets a low precedent for a landmark conservation program. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago we proposed a 45-million-acre cap for CRP—nearly double the current enrollment!
Habitat loss is the biggest threat to wildlife population health. It is fundamentally important to sportsmen, and to the game species we love, that we keep CRP enrollment on target. And it is incumbent upon the USDA to provide farmers and ranchers with a full suite of tools to put conservation on their lands. A dozen U.S. Senators agree: The agency ought to announce a nationwide CRP general signup, which it last did in 2013, and aggressively encourage farmers to enroll in continuous programs like State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement. We all need the USDA to step up.