After a year of stops and starts, flurries of progress and doldrums of inactivity, and much hard work from the sportsmen and conservation community, the 2008 Farm Bill was finally passed and became law on May 22, 2008. The certainty of reaching agreement on a new bill remained a question mark through most of the first half of this year. The Senate passed their bill before Christmas, but differing priorities and tight budgets delayed final conference negotiations on Capitol Hill.
Throughout the process, TRCP and its Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group consistently communicated our priorities for conservation to elected officials and stressed the need to see a new bill completed for continuity and viability of key programs. On May 14 and 15 respectively, the House and Senate did pass the conference report for the Farm Bill and the legislation was sent to the president for his signature. However, President Bush held true to his word and vetoed the bill citing overspending, tax increases, and lack of reforms in the legislation. In the absence of a new bill, Congress was faced with extending the 2002 bill or reverting back to 1949 law if they could not override the veto. On May 21, the House did override the veto by a vote of 316-108 and the Senate followed suit on May 22 with a vote of 82-13.
This marked the end of a long legislative process in which the conservation and sportsmen community worked together in ways never done before on the Farm Bill. TRCP’s facilitation of this coalition definitely made an impact and was noticed by policymakers at USDA and in Congress. This organized effort helped achieve what gains were made in the Conservation Title in a year when few increases and gains were to be found.
Now that the new bill has become law, our coalition is focused on analyzing the details of the new legislation and the impact it will have on the conservation programs. We also will remain involved with the administration in the rulemaking and implementation process to ensure that programs are formulated in a way that can achieve the best possible benefit for fish and wildlife habitat. We also seek to continue our public education and grassroots outreach efforts to foster a greater understanding of the importance of these programs and encourage maximum participation and enrollment.
Summary Outcomes for Key Farm Bill Conservation Programs
The final outcome for Farm Bill conservation programs was one of mixed results. There was an overall increase of $4 billion to conservation title programs; however, most of this new funding was needed to maintain existing programs. Generally, working land programs such as CSP and EQIP saw increases in funding over their previous levels while land retirement programs such as CRP, WRP and GRP had their funding or acreage levels reduced.
Open Fields – TRCP’s signature issue since our inception, Open Fields is designed to support voluntary, state-run programs that provide incentives to private landowners who allow public hunting and fishing access on their land. Many states have established programs that work in this vein, while many others have expressed the desire to create them. An added bonus of many of these types of programs is the fact that landowners who enroll their property are required to utilize best management practices for fish and wildlife. Open Fields is now law for the first time ever and will receive a total of $50 million in funding through the life of the new Farm Bill, which will expire in 2012.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – Total acreage authorization for America’s largest and most successful conservation program was reduced from 39.2 million acres to 32 million acres. The resulting savings was kept within the Conservation Title to help pay for other programs.
Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) – The only conservation program dedicated to wetlands in the Farm Bill was confronted with zero-baseline funding coming into this new Farm Bill. New money was found for WRP to renew the program at $1.3 billion. This is an overall reduction from the previous level, however, and provides for roughly 185,000 acres of enrollment per year.
Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) – This program focused on conservation of grasslands and prairies faced the same hurdle as WRP – needing new money just to be renewed. This was achieved with an influx of $300 million – hefty-sounding, but a lower amount than in the previous bill.
Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) – WHIP is the only conservation program in the Farm Bill that is dedicated exclusively to restoring fish and wildlife habitats on private land. Demand for this program is very high among farmers and ranchers in certain parts of the U.S., but the program would have ended if Congress had not reauthorized it in the new Farm Bill. WHIP will maintain the same funding level as it had in FY 2007 -- $85 million per year.
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – The purpose of the CSP is to encourage farmers and ranchers to use a comprehensive approach to conservation within their operations. The name of this program will change from the Conservation Security Program to the Conservation Stewardship Program on October 1, 2008 and funding has been increased. CSP has an acreage cap of 12,769,000 acres, and it must achieve an average national average rate of $18 per acre over the term of the farm bill. That translates into a dollar cap of about $2.3 billion ($2.29842 billion to be exact).
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – This refocused working lands conservation program will include croplands, grasslands, rangelands, pastures and nonindustrial private forest lands. Funding for the program will begin at $1.2 billion in FY2008 and will increase incrementally to $1.75 in FY2012, for a grand total of $7.325 billion over the term of the 2008 Farm Bill. This will make it the highest funded conservation program in history.
Farm and Ranchland Protection Program (FRPP) – Dedicated to encouraging and helping farmers and ranchers keep their land in agricultural uses, FRPP saw an increase to its funding – receiving a $562 million authorization.
Chesapeake Bay Program – A brand-new program created in this Farm Bill targeting conservation for the Chesapeake Bay by helping landowners reduce sediment and nutrient pollution was authorized at $372 million.
Tax Incentives for Conservation Easements – This Farm Bill revived important tax incentives available to landowners when making conservation easement donations. These incentives were set to expire but are renewed for another two years in this bill.
Sodsaver – A promising opportunity to help protect our nation’s fragile native prairies was missed with a weakened and ineffective version of a Sodsaver provision in this Farm Bill. Originally intended to broadly remove federally funded incentives for plowing native prairies, the final language made this available to regions within only five states and made compliance optional.
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The Farm Bill greatly benefits fish, wildlife and related recreation on America’s private farms, ranches and forests. The TRCP is working hard to maintain the law’s conservation emphasis while reducing agricultural pollution to our streams, wetlands and estuaries.
Senior Director of Science and Policy