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As Farm Bill debate drags on, conservation programs flounder

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Losses mount for native prairie and other conservation lands

WASHINGTON – April 25, 2008 – As extension after extension to the Farm Bill come and go, wetland conservation programs and native grasslands suffer the consequences.  The House and Senate passed another week long extension, which would make the new expiration date May 2nd, as long as the President does not veto it.

“Each delay in the bill is a cut to existing conservation programs,” said Barton James, Director of Agricultural Conservation Policy for Ducks Unlimited. “Each one by itself is not that bad, but cumulatively it is taking a toll on all of America.”

Native prairie grasslands, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world, are suffering a heavy loss, as incentives remain in place that encourage its destruction and conversion to cropland.  More than 500,000 acres of native prairie were lost nationwide in 2007, and already more than 10,000 acres of prairie have been broken in Nebraska alone in 2008. 

A provision called Sodsaver is part of the new Farm Bill.  It would discourage this conversion by removing crop insurance eligibility and other subsidies, but until the bill is signed into law there are no protections for native prairie.

The Wetlands Reserve Program, the nation’s most popular wetlands program, is suffering in a similar manner.  While the program has not reached its authorized acreage cap, a change in appraisal methods caused a sharp drop in enrollment nationwide.  This problem would be fixed in the new Farm Bill, but until it is enacted, the program will continue to underperform.  In addition, the program does not have guaranteed baseline funding, past the current bill, so finding the money for the program becomes more difficult as time wears on.

“Because of on going delays it isn’t just waterfowl and wildlife that suffer from conservation programs being hamstrung like this – this delay hurts farmers and ranchers who need viable options to conserve their land,” said James.  “Each day it becomes harder and harder for landowners to farm the best and conserve the rest.”

Even the Conservation Reserve Program, long called the “Holy Grail” of conservation, is faltering as rental rates for the program are being outstripped by commodity prices by a factor of five.  Rental rates in the Prairie Pothole Region on Conservation Reserve Program land are averaging $31 per acre, while commodity crops are bringing in more than $150 per acre.  As a result more than 400,000 acres, many of which are open to the public for hunting and fishing, of CRP have been removed from the program in South Dakota alone.

One option that lawmakers have discussed is a one-year extension of the current bill – an extension that would further magnify the problems experienced due to short-term extensions. 

“We want a Farm Bill that is good for conservation, but we also need one soon so that we aren’t trying to dig out of hole that has been created by the extensions,” said James. “A one-year extension would be disastrous.”

Ducks Unlimited was joined by 15 other conservation groups in sending a letter to the President this week, requesting that he not allow a one-year extension and instead continue to work with Congress to iron out the last differences in the bill.

With more than a million supporters, Ducks Unlimited is the world’s largest and most effective wetland and waterfowl conservation organization with over 12 million acres conserved. The United States alone has lost more than half of its original wetlands - nature’s most productive ecosystem - and continues to lose more than 80,000 wetland acres each year.

Neil Shader
202-347-1530
nshader@ducks.org

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