Funding for wildlife habitat first found its way into the federal Farm Bill in the mid-1930’s, and since then more than 1.5 million farmers, ranchers, forest owners, and landowners have participated in Farm Bill conservation programs. This funding has become a crucial component of the nation’s natural resources conservation strategy. As the Obama Administration works to implement the 2008 Farm Bill, it is critical that waterfowl-friendly conservation programs that have contributed to the economic viability of America’s farmers and ranchers and a healthier environment are restored, maintained, and enhanced.
Since the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, multiple factors have altered the accessibility and economic viability of certain conservation programs to landowners, as well as the ability to provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. We are confident that through collaborative efforts, members of the Administration and Ducks Unlimited (DU) can ensure that conservation programs provide private landowners with viable financial incentives to restore and protect large tracts of grasslands and wetlands that benefit North American waterfowl and other wildlife. In implementing the Farm Bill, we hope the Obama Administration will act to support DU’s motto of “Farm the best, Conserve the rest”.
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
Background: CRP, America’s most successful conservation program, is credited with saving 450 million tons of topsoil every year and protecting more than 170,000 miles of streams nationally, and generating more than 2.2 million ducks each year from the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of North and South Dakota. The program encourages farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to resource-conserving vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, and riparian buffers.
Need: A large percentage of CRP contracts in the PPR will expire between now and 2012, with no plan in place to renew or replace these contracts. At this time, limited opportunity exists to allow landowners to renew their contracts or to sign new ones. In addition, the processes currently used to establish rental rates are subjective, political and in many cases, are creating a wide disparity between CRP rental rates and cash rental rates for similar cropland. High commodity prices and increased corn ethanol demand reduce landowner interest in CRP, even when opportunities for enrollment do exist.
Recommendations: DU urges the Obama Administration to authorize general sign-ups once again and to recognize the importance of the PPR as a national conservation priority area when considering enrollment criteria. We also urge USDA to use statistical market surveys to determine annual rental rates so that the process is no longer arbitrary and rental rates can be adjusted to reflect current land rent values. We also strongly encourage the Administration to maintain the integrity of CRP contracts by not allowing early contract withdrawal without penalty, as proposed by the Farm Service Agency in Summer 2008.
Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)
Background: WRP is one of the most successful federal wetlands conservation programs. The program provides a voluntary, non-regulatory, incentive-based program for private landowners, farmers and ranchers to protect and restore the functions and values of wetlands on their property. WRP provides societal benefits such as improved water quality and quantity, reduced flood damage and enhanced wildlife habitat.
Need: The continental U.S. has lost over 50% of its wetlands and continues to lose these wetlands important to wildlife at the alarming rate of 80,000 acres annually. WRP continues to be a popular and successful program for landowners, and demand outstrips available funding by at least 3:1.
Recommendations: DU urges the Obama Administration to support full funding of the WRP and an annual acreage cap that does not limit wetland restoration opportunities for willing landowners. DU also recommends that the Administration work to resolve the Technical Assistance (TA) provider issue so that WRP can be delivered, allow TA funds to be carried over for more than one year, and to ensure TA allocations are significant enough to cover state allocated acres. Additionally, DU urges support in providing state NRCS offices with the staffing and funding to enable them to deliver WRP and other Farm Bill programs. Finally, DU urges the Administration to help resolve the WRP appraisal and ownership issue so as not to discourage landowner interest in this critically important conservation program.
Conversion of native grass- “Sodsaver”
Only 22 million acres of native prairie remain in the U.S. portion of the PPR and only about one million of these acres are protected in perpetuity. Incentives in the commodity title of the new Farm Bill coupled with a strong corn-based biofuels market are encouraging farmers in the PPR to convert native prairie to cropland. As a result of this irreversible change in land use, the livelihood of our nation’s ranchers are being threatened, habitat for a myriad of prairie dependent wildlife is disappearing, and large amounts of carbon are being released in to atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. The Administration should specify that conversion of native prairie without a prior cropping history should be permanently ineligible for all farm program payments.
The 2008 Farm Bill provided several helpful tools to promote the next generation of renewable energy. Care must be taken to ensure that the conservation of waterfowl, other wildlife, water resources, and the substantial environmental gains made under USDA conservation programs are not lost. DU urges the Administration to ensure the implementation of biofuels programs are consistent with the conservation of waterfowl and other wildlife. Research and development funding should be prioritized to rapidly promote the next generation of biofuels technology based on perennial crops that are managed to provide both environmental and fuel benefits to society.
Conversion of wetlands protection- “Swampbuster”
Swampbuster, a provision in the Farm Bill, has been in law over 20 years and is the only disincentive keeping at-risk wetlands from being lost in crop-dominated landscapes. Many of the remaining wetlands vital to waterfowl are located within native prairie or CRP grasslands and are vulnerable to loss or degradation if the surrounding grasslands are converted. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimate that breeding waterfowl populations would be reduced by 38 percent with the loss of at-risk wetlands in the PPR. DU urges the Administration to maintain current protection measures for preventing conversion of wetlands to other uses and to strengthen enforcement of the Swampbuster provision.
Access- “Open fields”
DU supported a provision in the Farm Bill creating a new program that encourages state governments to establish recreational access programs on private lands. The number one reason identified for the decline in hunters is decreased access to land. DU urges USDA to fully fund this new access program and to ensure that states publicize the location of enrolled lands.