Now that lawmakers have come to a bipartisan agreement on the nation’s largest source of conservation funding, the future looks brighter for fish and wildlife
Across the nation, private lands provide essential habitat and public access for America’s hunters and anglers, driving a rural outdoor recreation economy worth billions of dollars. And to improve the soil health, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat on these lands, the farm bill provides more than $5 billion to support private land conservation.
But on September 30 of this year, Congress let the 2014 Farm Bill expire and failed to pass a new bill. While most of the law’s major functions—such as caring for the hungry and providing a safety net for agricultural producers—carried on without issue, its support for wildlife habitat and sporting access immediately halted. For landowners and sportsmen and women across the country, this generated considerable uncertainty regarding the future of private lands conservation.
Thankfully, House and Senate Farm Bill negotiators finally announced a deal, leading to the swift passage of the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act by both chambers with record bipartisan support.
Here is a look under the hood of the 2018 Farm Bill and what some of its key provisions mean for sportsmen and women.
When filling up your gas tank, the amount of money spent determines how much fuel you get and how far you can go. Similarly, the amount of funding for conservation determines how many acres can benefit from the habitat and access programs in the farm bill. That’s why, throughout the course of deliberations and negotiations for the 2018 Farm Bill, TRCP led a determined opposition to any cuts to the programs that support healthy soil, clean water, and productive fish and wildlife habitat.
We are pleased to see that the final bill provides full funding—roughly $5 billion—for the critical work of conservation.
Agriculture Conservation Easement Program
Funding for this substantial wetlands program saw an increase of $200 million per year, meaning that roughly $450 million in funding will assist landowners with the protection, restoration and improvement of wetland easements. This natural infrastructure enhances fish and migratory bird habitat while mitigating flooding and boosting water quality by capturing arm runoff.
Conservation Compliance and Sodsaver
The 2018 Farm Bill maintains the integrity of wetland conservation compliance, known as “Swampbuster,” while strengthening “Sodsaver” grasslands protections. Combined, Swampbuster and Sodsaver provide critical safeguards for the wetlands and grasslands that comprise a significant amount of our waterfowl and upland bird habitat in the United States.
Conservation Reserve Program
CRP acreage grew by 3 million to a total of 27 million acres under this voluntary program, which incentivizes landowners to remove highly erodible and environmentally sensitive lands from production. This increase will provide much-needed upland habitat and water quality improvements.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
The bill boosts the funds dedicated to wildlife habitat practices under EQIP from 5 percent to 10 percent of the program’s total funds. This will dramatically increase the amount of money available for farmers and ranchers to create wildlife habitat on working lands for species such as the greater sage grouse and monarch butterfly.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program
Funding for the RCPP tripled to $300 million a year to be spent on landscape scale watershed projects that increase wildlife habitat while boosting water quantity and quality. This program is used everywhere from the Chesapeake Bay to the Columbia River to build resiliency in the face of pollution and drought.
Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program
The 2018 Farm Bill provides an additional $10 million in funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. This is a significant victory for sportsmen and women across the country who enjoy public access to nearly 1 million acres of private land opened under this program for everything from hiking to hunting and fishing.
Praise for the Farm Bill
“We’re relieved to see a Farm Bill move forward before this Congress concludes, because every day we go without critical programs for habitat and access it creates more uncertainty for rural America. With full funding for conservation and increased funding for states to create new walk-in access for hunting and fishing, this bill is a win all around—for sportsmen and women, landowners, wildlife, water quality, and our economy.”
— Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
“The Farm Bill is one of the largest single sources of conservation spending in the federal budget and it represents the single largest federal investment in private-lands conservation, so it is easy to see why it is so important.”
—Paul Phillips, co-chairman of the Boone & Crockett Club’s Conservation Policy Committee
“In short, the new Farm Bill is a victory for the conservation and stewardship of the natural treasures that are America’s ranches, farms and forests. The health of these lands is critical to the success of private landowners, to our economy and to rural communities. The bill’s investment in conservation programs, combined with important forestry provisions, will give landowners tools to protect their land and their way of life.”
—Mark R. Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy
“This is the first time CRP acres have increased since the 1996 Farm Bill. Part of that is due to the support of our 140,000 members, volunteers, hunters, farmers and landowners making their voices heard in support of a strengthened CRP.”
—Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever
“On behalf of the more than one million members and supporters of Ducks Unlimited, we’d like to thank Congress for their steadfast support of our nation’s wetlands and waterfowl through the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. By providing full-funding for the conservation title, Congress ensures that these voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs will continue to create opportunities to work with farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the country. Without their cooperation, Ducks Unlimited could not reach our goal of filling the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever.”
—Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited
Top photo by Nicholas Putz