By Eric Lindstrom
After two and a half years of delays and gridlock, Congress passed a new Farm Bill in February 2014
. This bipartisan legislation provides more than $28 billion in funding for a variety of conservation programs on private lands. Following is an overview of important conservation provisions included in the new Farm Bill, and how they are likely to impact waterfowl and their habitats across the United States over the next five years.
Renewed Wetland Protections
Since the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill, federal agricultural policies have encouraged producers to cultivate the most productive lands and minimize impacts on wetlands and highly erodible soils in exchange for federal farm program benefits. This policy of "conservation compliance
" has helped to provide an effective safety net for America's farmers, ensure an abundant and safe food supply for consumers, and conserve crucial habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. Research has confirmed that this policy has been very effective in conserving wetlands and other wildlife habitats on private lands over the past three decades. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that more than 3 million acres of "farmed wetlands
" (areas that can be cultivated and planted in dry years, but can't be drained or filled by producers without losing farm program benefits) may have been conserved nationwide thanks to this policy. In addition, conservation compliance has helped reduce soil erosion by approximately 295 million tons each year on more than 140 million acres of U.S. farmland.
In recent years, however, crop insurance has replaced traditional farm subsidies as the most important safety net for many producers, particularly in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR)
, where farming can be risky business due to a short growing season and unpredictable weather. Since 1996, farmers have not had to comply with wetland conservation policies to receive federal crop insurance. Taxpayers fund roughly 62 percent of total crop insurance premium costs as well as some underwriting and claims supports. Recent estimates suggest that this assistance could total nearly $90 billion over the next decade. Ducks Unlimited and its partners firmly believe that farmers need a strong safety net, and that public resources should help support it. But we also think it's a fair deal and sound fiscal and conservation policy to discourage wetland drainage in exchange for this assistance.
Without effective wetland protection policies linked to farm program benefits like crop insurance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that nearly 1.4 million small seasonal wetlands located in cropland-dominated landscapes in the eastern Dakotas and Montana—the heart of the U.S. "Duck Factory
"—would be at high risk of drainage. These wetlands support nearly 3 million breeding ducks each year, or roughly one-third of the current U.S. breeding duck population
. Widespread wetland drainage in this region would create the equivalent of a permanent man-made drought that would be catastrophic to continental waterfowl populations.
During Farm Bill negotiations, DU played a key role in bringing together a broad coalition of leading commodity, crop insurance, and conservation groups that supported recoupling conservation compliance with crop insurance and opposed efforts to weaken the safety net for producers. Notable members of this diverse coalition included the National Farmers Union, National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, American Farmland Trust, National Cotton Council of America, American Association of Crop Insurers, Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, National Wildlife Federation, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, the Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and many others. This historic alliance played a vital role in the passage of a new Farm Bill that renewed important wetland protections. While this was a big win for DU and our partners, the upcoming rule-making and implementation process will be just as important to ensure that the Farm Bill's conservation provisions achieve their objectives.