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Here’s how current administration of the conservation reserve program is leading to shrinking acreage and fewer habitat benefits across private lands
Each year, millions of American sportsmen and women hunt turkeys, quail, pheasants, deer, and other game species on private lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, one of the most widely recognized voluntary private land conservation programs in the Farm Bill. In the 35 years since its inception, the CRP has become one of the most successful programs, as well, providing a host of benefits to wildlife, farmers, ranchers, and sportsmen alike.
But even with a boost to CRP in the 2018 Farm Bill, which was largely celebrated by the hunting and fishing community, the country could end up with fewer overall acres of CRP lands—and therefore less conservation on the ground.
How is this happening?
In addition to improving soil, water, and habitat health, the CRP has become an economic support for rural communities and serves an important risk management function for enrolled landowners. Unfortunately, the current administration of the program has led to the hemorrhaging of baseline acreage, which threatens to unwind years of accrued conservation benefits.
The 2018 Farm Bill made a handful of changes to the CRP to ensure that enrollment could grow from 24 million to 27 million acres incrementally over the life of the five-year bill. Then, in late 2019, the Farm Service Agency announced guidance revising the management of CRP enrollment in the coming years.
This is typical following the passage of a Farm Bill and allows the agency to use its discretion to ensure that the program remains a practical tool for interested landowners. However, in reviewing the FSA’s changes, the TRCP and several of our partner organizations have grown concerned with two things: changes to rental rate calculations and the elimination of valuable cost shares.
Previously, the FSA would take into account the soil productivity of given acreage when determining rental rates. Now, the local county rental average is the sole factor in determining the annual rental rate for CRP—ignoring the various conditions that contribute to the value of a tract of land.
Further, the agency eliminated cost shares for the mid-contract management of CRP lands—this means that landowners are compensated for the land being out of production but not for upkeep. Program contracts last ten to 15 years, and conservation practices, particularly those on sensitive lands, require maintenance over time to safeguard their conservation value. By removing this support but continuing to require that the work be done, the FSA puts landowners in the position of facing additional expenses that will play out over the life of their contract.
The TRCP and others warned that weakening the economic support for CRP landowners could affect landowner interest and result in the program leaking acreage. And this is something we were watching as the agency proceeded in holding a General CRP sign-up from December to February 2020.
In mid-March, the FSA announced that the agency succeeded in enrolling 3.4 million acres into the program. Unfortunately, 5.4 million acres currently in the program will expire just as those contracts go into effect.
Here’s how this all shakes out:
22.5 million acres—or 2 million acres below the 24.5-million-acre cap—were enrolled in CRP as of December 2019
+ 3.4 million acres enters CRP in October 2020
– 5.4 million acres expire by October 2020
20.5 million total acres—4.5 million acres below the 25-million-acre cap—will be enrolled in CRP as of October 2020
This more than doubles the current acreage shortfall, and another 7 million acres is set to expire by October 2021. [It’s important to note that sign-ups are still ongoing for the continuous CRP, as well as CRP Grasslands, Clean Lakes Estuaries and Rivers (CLEAR), and the Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP), but enrollment in these programs will not make up the growing acreage shortfall.]
An increasing acreage shortfall is concerning, particularly given that this should have been a banner year for CRP sign-ups. Enrollment in the program typically has an inverse relationship with crop prices, and between weather events that shortened growing seasons and trade disputes harming export markets, farmers have faced a tough couple of years. In fact, USDA agricultural projections have anticipated that lower corn, soy, and wheat prices would drive the CRP to meet its rising cap.
So why didn’t more landowners seize the opportunity to enroll in the most recent sign-up? Simply put, the financial incentives offered by the FSA just didn’t cut it.
A host of variables go into how a farmer plans their land use to ensure that they can keep the lights on and gas in the tractor. If the incentives and rental rates offered by the FSA aren’t competitive, it makes more sense for a landowner to plant potential CRP lands or rent them out to a neighboring farmer.
We’ve heard numerous calls for the FSA to re-open the sign-up and give more landowners the chance to enroll acreage. However, if the product they are offering isn’t attracting interest in the first place, keeping their doors open for a few more weeks isn’t going to address the problem. With that in mind, in early April, the TRCP joined with several of our partner organizations in making recommendations to the FSA to grow landowner interest in the program.
Among the recommendations, we suggested restoring mid-contract cost shares as well as the consideration of soil productivity in rental rates. We also asked for a published timeline of general CRP sign-up periods to give landowners all the information necessary to make informed decisions about their lands.
USDA Secretary Perdue has said publicly that he intends for the FSA to keep pace with the new CRP enrollment cap, and we are committed to helping that happen. The TRCP, alongside our partners, is working to ensure that the program continues to be an American conservation success story, but we could use your help.
Please visit crpworks.org and add your name to the list of sportsmen, landowners, and concerned citizens fighting for the future of private land conservation.
Top photo by Brad Covington via flickr
The CARES Act has specific incentives for those who are in a position to give back
In these trying times, we know that many of you are finding solace in the outdoors—either to escape the confinement of home or to quiet anxious thoughts. Focusing on the sights and sounds of the natural world, rather than the latest scary headline, can be healing, and we hope you’re weathering this storm as best as you can.
Because of our supporters and your investments in us, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership has continued to make an impact on conservation policy during this national emergency. On behalf of the whole team at TRCP, I want to thank you all for your enduring generosity.
I also want to share an important update concerning changes to charitable giving. On March 27, President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, a $2.2-trillion emergency relief bill aimed at providing much-needed support to the American people and businesses in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Recognizing that nonprofits play an important societal and economic role, the CARES Act also creates charitable giving incentives for donors in 2020.
It does this in two ways: First, the legislation allows individual taxpayers to deduct up to $300 in charitable contributions on top of the standard deduction, even if you don’t itemize other deductions at tax time. Second the suspension of certain adjusted gross income limits allows individuals and corporations to contribute and deduct more than in previous years.
These tax incentives apply to cash contributions only—don’t worry, if you enter a credit card number on our website, this is for you—and do not apply to contributions to a Donor Advised Fund—you would know if you were working through a fund like this.
We cannot provide tax advice, but we encourage you to review the implications of the CARES Act to determine if now might be a beneficial time to for you to give. If you are in a position to do so, you can donate cash or stock online right now.
We know these are difficult times, and our staff is incredibly grateful for your consideration and support. Of course, we recognize that this pandemic has also created major financial burdens for many Americans. Public lands and waters are yours. And they’re here for you right now.
Here’s where new acres could be open to sportsmen and women by fall 2020
This week, the Department of the Interior announced its latest proposal for expanding hunting and fishing access on National Wildlife Refuges and National Fish Hatcheries, which the department says would represent the single largest boost to access on U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands in the agency’s history.
In a move that would benefit sportsmen and women in 46 states, DOI Secretary David Bernhardt has proposed enhancing recreation opportunities across more than 2.3 million acres at 97 national wildlife refuges and 9 national fish hatcheries. This is in addition to the 1.4 million acres of expanded access established last fall at 77 refuges and 15 hatcheries (including these eight hot spots.)
By our count, if the current proposal is finalized, 74 public lands would provide expanded seasons, clearer regulations, and opportunities to pursue additional species on areas already open to hunting and sportfishing. But the biggest gains are where additional acres would be opened up to hunting and/or fishing for the very first time.
Here’s where you could be exploring new terrain by this fall.
Under the plan, San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge would be open to sportfishing for the first time. There are no specific details on where fishing would be allowed, but restored tidal flats and salt marshes have improved fish habitat. And California’s pheasant hunters could see a longer season at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.
Idaho’s Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge would expand its sportfishing areas, and on the opposite end of the state, Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge could expand its offerings for deer, bobcats, migratory birds, and upland game. Minidoka has also proposed extending its elk hunting area south of Lake Walcott to more than triple the acreage. Heading toward the border with Oregon, more sportfishing would be available at Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge.
Montana already has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to hunting and fishing, but if Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is close to home, you could have more acres for turkey and deer hunting or new sportfishing opportunities.
In Colorado, migratory bird and upland game hunting would be expanded to new acres at both Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges—and you can get from one to the other in about 30 minutes if it seems like a bunch of trucks are parked when you arrive. Anglers would also find new access at Alamosa under the Secretary’s proposal.
Washington is perhaps the biggest winner in the West, with five fish hatcheries and two wildlife refuges poised to offer more access. Sportfishing would be open for the first time at Willard National Fish Hatchery and Abernathy Fish Technology Center. On the hunting side, sportsmen and women would see a major expansion for migratory bird and upland and big game hunting at Leavenworth, Little White Salmon, and Spring Creek national fish hatcheries. Blacktail, mule deer, elk, wild turkey, grouse, and bear hunting would be possible across these three public lands.
In Arizona, Leslie Canyon National Wildlife Refuge would be open to migratory bird, upland game, and big game hunting for the first time. Cibola National Wildlife Refuge would expand upland and big game hunting to new acres, while opening some dove hunting in its existing huntable areas. You could also get a new opportunity to chase muleys in the deep backcountry of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, where there is already a limited desert bighorn sheep hunt each December.
The only expansion for waterfowl hunters would be in New Mexico, on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, where javelina and hog hunting would also be opened. Nevada’s Fallon National Wildlife Refuge would also be open to hunting for the very first time. Finally, everything’s bigger in Texas, and refuge access is no exception under this proposal: Get ready for four of these public lands to expand huntable acres for turkeys, deer, pheasants, javelina, hogs, and doves.
New York could offer more deer hunting opportunities by fall, which is great news for a state with heavy hunting pressure on public lands. Maryland could see new opportunities to hunt deer and migratory birds at Blackwater Refuge, and sportfishing would be open for the first time at Delaware’s Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge. You sharpshooters who can tell a snipe from a woodcock would also get new acres to explore in Delaware. Finally, in Pennsylvania, Lamar National Fish Hatchery could open to sportfishing for the first time.
Illinois big game hunters would win new acres at Crab Orchard and Two Rivers refuges. Meanwhile, Great River National Wildlife Refuge could expand turkey season dates to further align with the rest of the state. Middle Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge, with multiple tracts accessible from either Illinois or Missouri, would open hunting for the first time. And there’s something for everyone, including rail, snipe, woodcock, doves, coyotes, bobcats, pheasants, and raccoons.
Migratory bird hunting would be open for the first time at Indiana’s Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge, along with expanded opportunities for small game and turkeys. And new acres would be open to pheasant, upland, and big game hunters at Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. Count anglers in for expanded access there, too.
Minnesota would get a little of everything in this expansion—on Rydell and Northern Tallgrass Prairie refuges—including duck, geese, coot, woodcock, dove, grouse, pheasant, and wild turkey hunting. And in Kansas, existing turkey hunting and sportfishing—for walleyes, largemouth bass, black crappie, and channel catfish—would expand to new acres at Kirwin National Wildlife Refuge. Existing deer hunting areas at Flint Hills refuge would be open to some small game, bobcat, and coyote hunting, while deer hunters would join pheasant, quail, and duck hunters for the first time at Quivira refuge.
Florida is a big winner in this proposal: The Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge—not to be confused with Everglades National Park, which is three hours away—would be open to sportfishing and migratory bird, upland, and big game hunting for the first time, in alignment with all state regulations. Big game and upland hunters will also find new access at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Deer and hog hunters would be welcome for the first time at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge outside Boynton Beach.
Not too far up route 75 in Georgia, gator hunters could have their first season at Banks Lake National Wildlife Refuge. And adventurous hunters can potentially up their (small) game at Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, which could soon offer armadillo, beaver, opossum, and raccoon hunting on both sides of the Georgia-South Carolina border.
In Connecticut, deer and turkey hunters would be welcome in new and existing hunting areas at Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Bonus acres would be open to bird hunters and goose hunters could get a longer season. Neighbor-to-the-north Vermont would get brand new fishing access at Dwight D. Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery.
The DOI proposal would be welcome news for saltwater and freshwater anglers in Maine and New Hampshire: Sportfishing would be expanded at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge on the southern coast and opened for the first time on the lakes at Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge.
Sportsmen and women in Massachusetts are within driving distance of so many of these opportunities, but they stand to gain a lot at home, too. New acres would be open to duck, bear, coyote, migratory bird, upland game, wild turkey and big game hunting across three refuges—Assabet River, Oxbow, and Great Meadows. And sportfishing would be open for the first time at Berkshire National Fish Hatchery.
Top photo of deer hunting on an Iowa refuge by USFWS Midwest Region via flickr.
Industry leaders spearhead efforts to combat COVID-19
We’ve said it before, but it’s always worth repeating: the TRCP is proud to have the support of some true leaders in the business world, who time and time again step up on behalf of fish, wildlife, and outdoor opportunities for all Americans. And in recent weeks, as COVID-19 has upended everyday life around this country, we’re prouder than ever of our corporate partners for their generosity and commitment to the greater good.
With many retail stores barred to entry and factory production rates slowing or halted, members of our corporate community are lending their resources to the fight. From retrofitting factories to restocking food bank shelves, these companies are committing their time, money, and production equipment to help us get through this difficult time.
As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” By taking action when it is needed most, here’s how the companies below* are taking care of those in need and setting an example for the rest of us.
The beverage company’s Atlanta-based factory has teamed up with Georgia Tech University to produce more than 50,000 plastic surgical shields that will be distributed to local hospitals and health care workers.
Founded in 1912 by its namesake, outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean, this New England institution is using experience gained over the last 100+ years of producing outdoors gear to create protective masks. The company is working with MaineHealth and Intermed and has plans to use its existing supply chain team to create and distribute 1 million masks. The company is also working with local food banks and using its distribution center to restock shelves for families in need.
In an effort to help local medical facilities, Bozeman-based Mystery Ranch is using the antimicrobial and breathable fabric used in their backpacks to produce much-needed personal protective equipment for frontline workers. Along with the time of its expert employees and the use of its sewing facilities, the industry-leading pack manufacturer has also contributed additional materials from its stock to others in the community with the capacity to manufacture extra masks.
This outdoor equipment company is encouraging individuals to recreate responsibly while enjoying the open air through a series of posts on outdoor activities that you can enjoy near your home and a photo challenge. This Instagram-based competition is calling on those who love the outdoors to highlight the creative ways they’re enjoying outdoor spaces while practicing safe social distancing through photos. In addition, NEMO is publishing a series of blogs with ideas for close-to-home adventures to help outdoor enthusiasts alleviate their cabin fever responsibly.
Known for its high-quality fishing gear, this company has partnered with organizations near its Roanoke, VA fulfillment center to produce 2,000 cloth face coverings per week. These non-medical-grade masks will be distributed to those experiencing homelessness in the are and will help protect this particularly vulnerable population.
Drawing on almost its nearly 40-year history of forward-thinking innovation, Outdoor Research’s Seattle factory will be converted to produce N95 surgical masks, respirators, and other personal protective equipment to help address the increased need for these essential medical supplies.
Despite closing operations early in the outbreak to protect workers, Patagonia has committed to providing employees with regular pay throughout the crisis in an effort to protect the communities it serves. The company also has staff reaching out to nonprofits and offering volunteer services to support their operations.
This environmentally-focused design company is utilizing the launch of its latest product to provide coronavirus relief and help fight climate change with a commitment to donate 100% of profits earned from the first four days (4/7-4/11) that their Travel Tripod is on sale to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Foundation.
Despite closing the doors of its 162 retail stores, this outdoor retailer has committed to pay all store employees through April 14th in a letter from the company president and CEO. The company has also made the decision to keep online stores open and is offering free shipping to support those looking for outdoor recreation opportunities while social distancing.
Simms Fishing Products
This pillar of the fishing community is “wading” into the fight against COVID-19 and partnering with Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital. The fishing products company is using Gore-Tex—a material traditionally employed in the production of their popular waterproof waders—to produce more than 1,500 medical-grade gowns per week.
Despite uncertainty, Vista Outdoors has committed to expand its support for non-profit organizations through partnerships and brand-level support. Federal Ammunition–a company under the umbrella of Vista–has also donated multiple cases of N-95 face masks to health care facilities.
*Editor’s Note: We tried to find as many of these stories as we could, but the above list is not comprehensive. Similar efforts we might have overlooked will be added to the list as time allows. Let us know in the comments below of any other hunting and fishing brands stepping up in the fight against COVID-19.
In the last two years, policymakers have committed to significant investments in conservation, infrastructure, and reversing climate change. Hunters and anglers continue to be vocal about the opportunity to create conservation jobs, restore habitat, and boost fish and wildlife populations. Support solutions now.Learn More