By Dan Wrinn
The 2012 Farm Bill is scheduled to be reauthorized next year, and depending on the outcome, this single piece of legislation will either positively or negatively impact millions of acres of wetlands, grasslands and other waterfowl habitat
across the United States. The scope of this legislation is enormous. The Farm Bill
is responsible for ensuring that our nation's food supply is safe and plentiful. It also provides funding for agricultural conservation programs, including, but not limited to, the Conservation Reserve Program
(CRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program
(WRP). These voluntary, incentive-based programs help farmers and ranchers conserve soil as well as keep our streams, rivers, and lakes clean. These programs are of particular interest to waterfowlers because they directly affect duck populations and our hunting heritage.
CRP, for example, is among the most popular conservation programs in U.S. history. Farmers and ranchers are paid an annual rental rate for 10 to 15 years to restore former cropland to grass cover and, in doing so, significantly reduce erosion. The positive impact CRP has had on waterfowl, pheasant, and other grassland-nesting bird populations has been amazing. In the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region
(PPR) alone, CRP lands produce an estimated 2.2 million ducks each year, which funnel down every flyway in the fall.
Unfortunately, CRP acres have been steadily declining on the prairies and elsewhere. CRP enrollment in the PPR peaked at approximately 8.2 million acres in 2007. Hundreds of CRP contracts in this region are expiring each year, and if current trends continue, CRP acreage in the Duck Factory could decline to 1.8 million acres by 2017.
WRP, the nation's premier wetlands restoration program on private lands, faces even greater threats. Authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill to enroll up to 250,000 acres of wetland easements and restorations a year for five years, WRP funding could be eliminated when the current Farm Bill expires on September 30, 2012. This would truly be a major setback for conservation, especially when last year alone farmers and ranchers overwhelmingly supported WRP by enrolling a record 272,000 acres in the program.
In addition to the enormous benefits WRP provides waterfowl and other wildlife, this program also serves as a safety net for financially distressed farmers by providing much-needed supplementary income. Wetlands restored on WRP lands also help control downstream flooding by storing excess runoff, and WRP reduces federal disaster payments by taking marginal, flood-prone cropland out of production. WRP is clearly a winner for farmers, taxpayers, and wildlife, but unless Congress renews its authorization and funding in the next Farm Bill, this invaluable program will be severely diminished or terminated outright.