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The new Farm Bill

5/31/2006

WASHINGTON — If you're not a farmer, then you probably didn't pay much
attention to the debate going on here concerning the new Farm Bill. But
for sportsmen across the United States, there is good news to report.

The bill that President Bush signed last month will likely increase spending
on farmland conservation by $17 billion over the next decade. Yes, lawmakers
can be loose with the taxpayers' money on occasion. But something along the
lines of an 80 percent increase is pretty hefty, even in these parts.

The increase is proof of a couple of things: One has to do with politics.
Lawmakers wanted to do all they could to get farmers' support. After all,
farm states such as Iowa and South Dakota could well determine the balance
of power in Congress next year. But the increase is also due to
the programs' overwhelming success in just the few years its been around.

In the grand scheme of things, the conservation programs within this year's
Farm Bill are mere babes. The Conservation Reserve Program, the granddaddy
of them all, only came into being in 1985. Yet the proof of its benefits to
wildlife and to sportsmen is overwhelming and irrefutable.

Conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever
wholeheartedly have endorsed the Farm Bill. To quote one of them: "All of
Pheasant Forever's legislative priorities are addressed in this array of
conservation programs."

The bill took several months to put together, with the Senate and the House
of Representatives at odds over several issues. Among them: How much money
to put into farmer subsidies; and how much money to put into
conservation.

The new bill: an overview

When it came to conservation, the House of Representatives
proposed to up the spending by a little more than $15 billion over the
coming decade. The Senate proposed substantially more — about $21 billion.

The compromise disappointed some interest groups, but others realized that
funding could have been much less given that we're a nation at war, and with a budget that will be running in the red over the next few
years. The deficit for this fiscal year alone could exceed $100 billion.

Here are some of the highlights of the Farm Bill.

  • An additional 3 million acres will be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve
    Program. That increase will put about 39 million acres in the program.

  • The enrollment cap for acreage in the Wetlands Reserve Program will be more
    than doubled to 2.3 million acres.

  • About $700 million, a 10-fold increase in spending, will be dedicated to
    the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.

  • And for the first time, there will be a program that shields up to 2
    million acres of pastureland from development or conversion into row crops.
    It's called the Grassland Reserve Program. It was important to get this
    program up and running because once a government program gains a foothold,
    chances are it's only going to get bigger.

    Past success

    You do not need a long memory to know what setting aside this land will mean
    for wildlife — and the hunters and fishermen of America.

    Duck
    hunters were looking at a dire forecast when the Conservation Reserve
    Program was first established in 1985.
    Mallards, pintails and blue-winged teal were in trouble. Populations were at
    or near their lowest levels in 30 years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    placed waterfowl breeding populations at 25.6 million ducks.

    Then came the Farm Bill, which for the first time idled millions of acres
    through the Conservation Reserve Program.
    Last year, the breeding population of ducks was placed at slightly more
    than 36 million ducks. And those numbers would have been even better if it
    were not for drought-like conditions in much of Canada during recent
    breeding seasons.

    Much of the credit for the rising population can be traced
    back to conservation programs authorized in previous Farm Bills. In the Prairie Pothole region alone, researchers credit CRP grounds with
    giving us an additional 10 million ducks between 1992 and 1997.

    Similar success stories abound with other species, too — from songbirds, to
    ringnecked pheasants, to whitetail deer.

    In Minnesota, for example, ringnecked pheasant populations nearly tripled
    in the decade after passage of the 1985 Farm Bill. And in Ohio the
    pheasant population doubled in just the first few years of the program.

    Why did those numbers increase? Successful hatches. The odds
    are stacked against hatchlings making it to
    their first birthday. But when birds have the kind of cover that CRP
    provides, those odds improve dramatically. That's because predators have to
    work so much harder to find those nests, and they have more prey to choose
    from.

    In one study in northwestern Texas, researchers found six pheasant nests per 10
    acres of CRP ground, but no nests in similar tracts of cornfields. And in
    Missouri, 55 percent of the northern bobwhite nests that researchers found
    were on CRP habitat that comprised only 15 percent of the largely rural
    agricultural landscape.

    Money talks

    Farmers are not the only ones who benefit economically from the Farm Bill's
    conservation programs. The federal government estimates that the improved
    hunting that results from the Conservation Reserve Program runs into the
    billions of dollars in additional spending by hunters. For many small-town
    cafes, motels and mom-and-pops in the Midwest, the opening week of pheasant
    and quail season will be their busiest week of the year. In South Dakota, annual spending by hunters now amounts to $100
    million a year. About three-quarters of that money comes from out-of-state
    visitors.

    The CRP was not the first land retirement program operated by the United
    States Department of Agriculture. Its predecessors date back to 1933. All
    were designed to reduce crop surpluses, which they did. But one thing they
    did not do was enhance wildlife. Nor did they do much to prevent soil
    erosion. In fact, some believe those earlier programs made the problem only
    worse.

    So, what's changed? Predecessors of the CRP used short-term contracts
    for setting aside land — often just one year. Participants were required to
    plant cover too late in the year to help nesting birds.

    To make matters worse,
    landowners were required to mow or plow the cover that very summer. Studies
    show that mowing such grasslands can devastate bird populations,
    particularly in the early summer months when broods need all the cover they
    can get to escape predators. In the Prairie Pothole region, for example, about 70
    percent of nests are still active in mid-June.

    Yes, the old programs took land out of agriculture production. But they took the land out of wildlife production, too.

    Today, landowners enter into 10-year contracts when they agree to
    participate in the CRP program. And there are greater restrictions on
    disturbing the land with mowing or grazing. Landowners can cut
    grass for hay only during severe droughts, for example.

    Without the money that the conservation programs provide farmers, many would
    have little incentive to set aside that land. They have bills and taxes to
    pay, too.

    The conservation programs also divvy up the government's money
    more evenly and fairly so that ranchers and certain types of fruit and
    vegetable farmers can also get the financial aid that Farm Bills are
    designed to provide. They would get nothing if the Farm Bill didn't include
    the conservation programs.

    Even with the growth in the conservation programs, American is losing
    wetlands and prairies at an alarming rate. From 1992 to 1997, America lost
    11.2 million acres to development. That's an area half the size of Indiana.
    More than any other reason, that's why sportsmen need this farm
    bill.