Andrew Earl

April 17, 2020

One of the Farm Bill’s Most Popular Conservation Programs Is Losing Ground

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?

Conservation Could Come Undone

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.

Navy-veteran Lenny Evans Miles, Jr. works his 3,000-acre farm in Chestertown, Md., where he has implemented Conservation Reserve Program and Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program practices to help prevent nutrient run off. Photo by USDA/Preston Kares.
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

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.]

The Farmer’s Balance Sheet

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.

What You Can Do

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

16 Responses to “One of the Farm Bill’s Most Popular Conservation Programs Is Losing Ground”

  1. Avatar
    Stacia Haley

    We must protect the expiring lands and continue to add to them, Our farmlands are fundamental to our existence and factory farms must be ended as they are not only hurting our family farms they are endangering our food supply. Family farms do a much better job.

  2. Avatar
    Valeria Vincent Sancisi

    The conservation easements in the California Foothills (98% privately owned), yields a healthier and more profitable farm/ranch especially if the easement stewards the land’s water ways.. pastures are greener and hills restore natural habitat that has been long altered since it was settled very early. As ranching and farming begins to realize practices that feed the soil give greater yields over the long run..

  3. Avatar
    Jake Stolley

    What was the reasoning for reverting to county average rental prices rather than prices based on soil productivity? Without knowing much, my initial thought is it’s presented as a time/effort-saving measure on their part. And I could see where that’s true if someone has to go look at each plot. Though, does anyone know “difficult” it is to evaluate a given plot of land?

    • Kristyn Brady
      Kristyn Brady

      Thanks for the question, Jake. The why of doing away with soil productivity is somewhat tough to answer, but the Administration has said that they are implementing the Conservation Title with an eye towards efficiency and cost savings.

  4. Avatar
    linda gee

    I feel it is absolutely necessary to realign the FSA midprogram costs to keep in pace with the enrollment cap to ensure a good outcome for farmers and environmentalists.

  5. Avatar
    Jack Whitney

    Our family had 1500 acres of CRP in Eastern Washington that was prime deer habitat. We had a program with the game department to allow hunters to hunt it. We were in CRP for 20 years. After looking at this year’s program, we leased it to a neighbor farmer to farm. We would have like to kept it in CRP, but the money we were offered by the Farm Service was way below what we got 20 years ago, Now the only hunting will be by family members.

  6. Avatar

    This election will have a profound effect on conservation in general and funding. Control of the White House and Congress will impact decisions well beyond our lifetimes. For some sportsmen it will be a quandary on how to vote. I encourage all sportsmen to look at the issues and the future of sporting conservation for the next generation, then vote.

  7. Avatar
    Chris merker

    I own land in central Montana. I have been a firm believer, and participant in CRP for 20 years, as the environmental benefits are astounding. I recently offered 270 acres in the 2020 signup. I was told i only needed to seed 10%to pollinator species which I was willing to do. When i went to sign the contract I found FSA also wanted me to tear out 150 acres of native species grassland planted 10 years earlier. This would negate 10 ears of carbon capture, lose soil and moisture, and be very expensive.
    Then they only offered half the rental rate of 10 years earlier. My Pheasants
    Forever friend advised me not to sign and I did not. I think FSA did this to keep costs down in the face of record budget deficits.

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Jenni Henry

April 16, 2020

Two Ways the Stimulus Bill Helps You Support Nonprofits Like the TRCP

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.

Stay well.

Andrew Earl

April 1, 2020

$49M Will Expand Recreational Access on Private Land

Because we could all use some good news right now

This month, the Natural Resource Conservation Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would invest nearly $49 million in projects to enhance public access for outdoor recreation, including hunting and fishing, on private land across 26 states. These awards are made possible by the Farm Bill’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, or VPA-HIP, which is the only federal conservation program that helps private landowners open their property to public access.

The NRCS asked state and tribal governments to apply for VPA-HIP dollars in September 2019, after Congress stepped up its investment in the program by $10 million in the most recent Farm Bill. Projects were eligible to receive up to $3 million in federal dollars to be leveraged with locally matched funding over the next three years.

Sportsmen and women fought to maintain or improve conservation funding in the 2018 Farm Bill, and the TRCP called on lawmakers to support VPA-HIP investments in walk-in access programs and other initiatives that would give rural hunters and anglers more access.

Ultimately, this could be a down payment on hunter recruitment where lack of access is a major barrier for beginners. In some places, the funding will be focused on lands near metropolitan areas or improving online resources to market these opportunities.

But don’t forget the “hip” part of this program: Dollars can also be used to improve wildlife habitat, which could boost game populations across the entire landscape. This will be done in wetland, upland, grassland, forest, and stream habitats with the most recent round of funding.

These advances for access and habitat highlight the need to continue investing in VPA-HIP in the next five-year Farm Bill, which is already something we’re prioritizing with our conservation partners.

Here are the 26 states gaining more ground, how much will be spent, and what types of habitat will benefit.

Image courtesy of Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Arizona

$1.18 million to expand the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Landowner Relations Program, which provides financial incentives to private landowners who provide the public with opportunities to hunt and fish on their land.

Arkansas

$2.1 million to enhance hunting access and waterfowl habitat on rice fields neighboring nearby National Wildlife Refuges and state Wildlife Management Areas.

Colorado

$1.2 million to expand the state’s Walk-In Access program for small- and big-game hunters.

Georgia

$1.9 million will fund the lease of farm and forest land to expand opportunities for dove hunting in the state’s Wildlife Management Area Public Access Program.

Idaho

$900,000 will fund the enrollment of additional hunting and fishing acres into the state’s Access Yes! Program, as well as jumpstart the creation of a Teton Valley Wildlife Viewing Project.

Illinois

$2 million will expand the Illinois Recreational Access Program with a focus on metropolitan areas and the enrollment of wetland easements.

Indiana

$750,000 will fund the strategic enrollment of acreage into the state’s Access Program Providing Land Enhancements (APPLE) initiative.

Iowa

$1.5 million will help expand the Iowa Habitat and Access Program (IHAP).

Kansas

$2.1 million will fund the expansion of incentive payments and lease options made available to landowners to open public access and improve wildlife habitat.

Kentucky

$850,000 will fund agency efforts to create a new access program with a focus on dove fields and wetland easements.

Michigan

$1.6 million to expand the state’s Hunting Access Program (HAP), specifically to provide sharptail grouse and deer hunting opportunities.

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS
Minnesota

$2.5 million to boost incentives for landowners to enroll in Minnesota’s Walk-In Access program.

Missouri

$2.23 million will go to the Missouri Outdoor Recreation Access Program (MRAP) for private landowners willing to allow access and improve wildlife habitat on their farm, ranch, and forest lands.

Montana

$1.89 million to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to provide more walk-in hunting access on previously inaccessible acres with high-quality game bird habitats.

Nebraska

$3 million to expand walk-in access and improve habitat on acreage within Nebraska’s Open Fields and Waters (OFW) program.

New Mexico

$1 million will go to the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribe to support access restoration and improved fishing opportunities on the Rio Grande.

Image courtesy of Russ Terry, Ducks Unlimited.
Ohio

$1.83 million will support the newly created Ohio Public Access for Wildlife (OPAW) program, opening acres to hunting, trapping, and wildlife viewing across the state.

Oklahoma

$3 million will support expansion of the Oklahoma Land Access Program (OLAP) near metropolitan areas and establish an online database of private acres open for access.

Oregon

$2.86 million will support expansion of existing public access programs and facilitate the reenrollment of access on expiring VPA-HIP acreage.

Pennsylvania

$668,361 will support fishing access via Pennsylvania’s Public Fishing Access and Conservation Easement Program.

South Carolina

$469,476 in funds will facilitate the growth of the state’s Public Waterfowl Lottery Hunts Program to support more duck blinds on private land.

South Dakota

$2.18 million will support expanded hunting opportunities as well as new access to state fisheries from across private lands.

Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Texas

$1.83 million will support the expansion of existing public hunting programs, increasing both available acreage and days. The funds will also increase maintenance capacity across state-leased fishing access sites.

Virginia

$2.998 million will facilitate growth of Virginia’s Public Access Lands for Sportsmen program and provide additional financial support to enrolled landowners seeking to improve wildlife habitat.

Washington

$2.74 million will build upon existing state recreational access programs and support habitat restoration on enrolled lands.

Wisconsin

$1.91 million will support wetland and grassland restoration in southern counties and support financial incentives for landowners to enroll acreage in the state’s Turkey Hunting Access Program.

Wyoming

$1.54 million will support enrollment and habitat restoration on acreage in the state’s Access Yes Program, plus other lands and habitat programs.

 

Is your state on the list? Leave us a comment if you use walk-in access programs where you live.

Randall Williams

March 31, 2020

Wildlife Professionals Thank Colorado Governor for Leading on Migration Corridors

Former wildlife agency leaders, scientists, and other natural resource experts want to see continued support and success on this conservation issue

In a letter to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, 12 wildlife and natural resources professionals thanked the governor for issuing a 2019 executive order to conserve Colorado’s big game winter range and migration corridors and urged the state to continue its efforts on this critical issue.

These professionals—each with between 30 to nearly 50 years of experience in wildlife and natural resources management, research, and conservation—came together to request that decision-makers in Colorado build upon the Governor’s executive order, emphasizing the need for long-term funding and a holistic view of migration corridor and habitat conservation.

“As a longtime wildlife professional and Colorado resident, I appreciated Governor Polis enacting his executive order on big game winter range and migration corridors,” said John Ellenberger, a 43-year veteran wildlife biologist and TRCP Ambassador. “This policy has brought much-needed attention to these vital habitats and will benefit state agency coordination and cooperation for conserving wildlife in our state.”

The order, issued in August of last year, provides particular focus on safe wildlife passage and wildlife-vehicle collisions. While the professionals agreed with this emphasis, they noted that “wildlife migration and corridor conservation transcend well beyond wildlife-vehicle collisions and crossing structures.” The letter went on to urge that decision-makers and the public remember that wildlife corridors may not necessarily intersect highways and roads, and that effective wildlife crossings may not always occur along established migration corridors.

Migration corridors and associated habitats used during seasonal movements–often called “stopover habitat”–are part of an animal and herd’s overall home-range. Each piece of this complex habitat puzzle is vital for species to exist in continually changing landscapes.

“Animal movements and use of habitat is complex and no single habitat can be managed in isolation, ignored, or forgotten during land use planning,” said Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “We need to take a holistic approach when managing habitat and corridors for any species of wildlife.”

Polis’ executive order directs the Department of Natural Resources to work with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to incorporate information on big game migration corridors into their relevant public education materials. “The public often does not distinguish between seasonal habitats used by wildlife, so–to that end–education, outreach and stakeholder engagement identified by the order will be fundamental to maintaining long-term support for this initiative,” said Arnett.

The letter also points out that “human perturbations such as energy development, subdivisions, commercial development, and dispersed human recreation are known to disrupt wildlife migrations and habitat use and may have long-lasting impacts.” The experts believe potential conflicts should be anticipated when wildlife migrations interface with all forms of energy development and other disturbances that disrupt or block animal movements.

“Although data are still being collected in Colorado and across the West, existing evidence clearly demonstrates that development can impact migratory movements and habitat use,” said Dr. Len Carpenter, a veteran big game ecologist with more than 40 years of experience in wildlife research and management. “If Colorado’s big game herds are to be sustained, we must ensure that critical habitats and migratory movement and functionality are maintained.”

The letter concluded by emphasizing that “the state and federal departments and agencies, industry and private landowners all must have long-term, institutionalized support for corridor conservation.” The experts encouraged the state “to pursue all avenues to secure long-term durability of policy and funding for big game winter range and migration corridor conservation that will transcend multiple Administrations at both the state and federal levels.”

“The future of big game populations in Colorado must not be taken for granted,” says Ron Velarde, retired Northwest Regional Manager for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife and resident of Grand Junction with 47 years’ experience in wildlife management. “We have a real opportunity through current state and federal policies to ensure Coloradans can always enjoy health populations of mule deer, elk and other wildlife that are key economic drivers of our outdoor economy.”

Read the letter from 12 wildlife experts here.

 

Photo: Larry Lamsa via Flickr

Randall Williams

March 10, 2020

Wildlife Professionals Urge New Mexico Governor to Continue Leading on Migration Corridors

Former wildlife agency leaders, scientists, and other natural resource experts line out the requirements for successful policy on this conservation challenge 

In a letter to New Mexico Governor Michelle Luhan Grisham, 14 wildlife and natural resources professionals thanked the governor for the state’s leadership on the issue of migration corridor conservation and urged the state to continue its efforts on this critical issue.

These professionals—each with between 20 to 50 years of experience in wildlife and natural resources management, research, and conservation—came together to request that decision-makers in New Mexico build upon the bipartisan support demonstrated by the passage of the Wildlife Corridors Act in 2019, the first-of-its-kind legislation in the country. They emphasized the need for adequate funding and a long-term, holistic view of migration corridor and habitat conservation if the state hoped to succeed in its efforts.

“As a longtime wildlife professional and New Mexico resident, I appreciated Governor Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Legislature passing the Wildlife Corridors Act,” said Dr. Bill Dunn, a 40-year veteran wildlife biologist and environmental consultant. “This bill is the first of its kind in America and should benefit conservation of migration corridors vital to our wildlife populations.”

In recent years, big game migration has become a priority for conservationists. “We’ve long known the importance of migration to and from seasonal habitats, but new technology has made the importance of these habitats for mule deer, pronghorn and other animals even clearer,” said Dr. Ed Arnett, chief scientist for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

The letter asks that funding for migration corridor conservation extend beyond coordination and planning for transportation-related issues such as wildlife-vehicle collisions and crossing structures. Currently, the state has only set aside funding under the Corridors Act for such
projects. “It is important,” the signers noted, “for policy- and decision-makers and the public to remember that wildlife corridors may not necessarily intersect highways and roads.”

The breadth of the issue will require the state to utilize funds other than those set aside specifically for game protection, noted the letter, and it “encourage[d] New Mexico legislators to work closely with NMDGF and the New Mexico State Game Commission to ensure adequate funding is made available to support implementation…while maintaining funding for other agency priorities.”

Another challenge highlighted by the letter is coordinating the management of the full suite of habitats required by big game animals as they move across the landscape, including summer and winter range, migration corridors, and stopover habitats. To do this effectively, the state will need to conduct extensive research that could take years to complete. In the meantime, the letter urged state agencies to “develop interim guidance and recommendations while data are being gathered to ensure appropriate management and protection of potentially unmapped corridors.”

Additionally, the letter encouraged the BLM to work proactively with the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game to ensure that energy development on public lands does not disrupt wildlife migrations, as research has shown the impacts to be significant and long-lasting.

“Even though data are still being collected in New Mexico, the weight of existing evidence is clear that development does impact migratory movements and habitat use,” said Arnett. “We should anticipate potential conflicts with wildlife migrations that interface with all forms of energy development and other disturbance.” The signers noted that “Ensuring migration movement and functionality may require the state wildlife agency request leasing deferrals…or implementation of special management recommendations.”

The letter concluded by emphasizing that “the state and federal departments and agencies, and private landowners all must have long-term, institutionalized support for corridor conservation” and encouraged the state “to pursue all avenues that secure long-term support for conservation that will transcend multiple Administrations at both the state and federal levels.

“Healthy populations of mule deer, elk and other big game are a key economic driver for New Mexico’s economy,” says Dr. Ben Brown, a New Mexico resident and retired wildlife biologist with 48 years’ experience in wildlife conservation. “Conservation is a long-term endeavor. Both the state and federal governments need to ensure the functionality of habitat and migratory movements with long-term, institutionalized policy and funding for these efforts.”

Read the letter from 14 wildlife and habitat experts here.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

WHAT WILL FEWER HUNTERS MEAN FOR CONSERVATION?

The precipitous drop in hunter participation should be a call to action for all sportsmen and women, because it will have a significant ripple effect on key conservation funding models.

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