You heard from us last week about the final budget proposal of President Obama’s administration, including the fact that this (largely symbolic) financial framework indicates that conservation of natural resources, like the fish and wildlife species important to sportsmen, will be a key priority through the end of this presidency. Now, considering that the US Department of Agriculture administers the largest pot of funding for private lands conservation anywhere in the world, it’s worth going into a little detail on how the president’s budget would give fish and wildlife a boost in farm country.
For 2017 alone, the president is proposing to invest roughly $4.72 billion dollars in landowner conservation projects through just one USDA agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), for which we owe him a hearty “thank you.” This extraordinary amount of support for conservation is made even greater by the fact that this is the first time in his presidency that Obama has not proposed any cuts to the private lands conservation funding established by the Farm Bill.
You may know that every five years or so, Congress passes a Farm Bill, which sets mandatory spending amounts for a whole suite of agriculture programs, including those impacting conservation. In this case, “mandatory” means that certain funding levels are pre-determined, and so do not need to be appropriated by Congress and given to NRCS through annual appropriations bills, as is required for the Forest Service or other agencies. Despite this mandatory designation, Congress and the president have a habit of raiding the Farm Bill conservation accounts to some degree, every single appropriations season, in order to justify paying for other, unrelated programs.
Although the president’s budget proposal for 2017 is non-binding, and Congress will still vigorously debate how much money to appropriate for conservation, Obama has put an offer on the bargaining table that is too good for sportsmen to ignore. By choosing not to cut key Farm Bill programs, he is proposing to restore approximately $540 million in mandatory funding to farm country’s conservation budget. Obama is also proposing a discretionary increase of $9.5 million (total: $860 million) to help NRCS staff guide and support more farmers, ranchers, and foresters who want to put conservation on the land.
That’s something we’d like to see become more than just symbolic.
The president has sent a strong signal to Congress that the voluntary, incentive-based private lands conservation programs run by the USDA are important for rural America, wildlife, water quality, and our sporting traditions. Sportsmen want to see this trend continue, and we hope that Congress sits up and listens.