WASHINGTON – May 8, 2008 – With a Farm Bill being readied for a final floor vote in the House and Senate, agricultural conservation initiatives are being treated differently than they were in earlier versions of this year’s bill and in previous Farm Bills.
“This bill has mixed results for ducks,” said Dr. Alan Wentz, Senior Group Manager for Conservation and Communications. “We were pleased to see the revival of the Wetlands Reserve Program, but at the same time disappointed to see the Conservation Reserve Program acreage reduced.”
Despite the positive results initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program have on clean water, healthy farmland and wildlife habitat, those programs are being scaled back in acreage and changes have been made to provisions that have made them popular with farmers and ranchers.
Essential conservation programs in the Farm Bill like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), regarded as the “holy grail” of conservation programs, are seeing acreage reductions. CRP’s proposed acreage will be lowered from the previous Farm Bill’s 39.2 million acres to approximately 32 million acres. In the Prairie Pothole Region of the northern Great Plains, America’s “duck factory,” CRP acres are critical for nesting habitat for waterfowl and other grass-nesting birds. For example, 7.8 million CRP acres in the Prairie Pothole Region are responsible for adding more than 2.2 million ducks to the annual fall migration each year, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - equivalent to all ducks harvested in the Atlantic Flyway.
However there are positive developments for some conservation provisions. The Wetlands Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program are being revived. Both programs were set to expire with the 2002 Farm Bill. Both programs would be authorized at levels below what they were in the 2002 Farm Bill.
There was also a two-year extension to incentives to conservation easements on private lands. These conservation easements have proven invaluable in convincing private landowners to protect their lands for the benefit of wildlife, water quality and other benefits to society.
Senate and House supported provisions that would discourage destruction of America’s last native prairie have been diluted in this final version of the bill. Called “Sodsaver,” that provision would remove taxpayer financed incentives to begin cultivating crops on virgin grasslands. Ducks Unlimited biologists have estimated that more than 3.3 million acres of native prairie will be lost during the next five years. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that for every 1% of native prairie lost, fall waterfowl migrations are reduced by more than 25,000 ducks.
The Sodsaver provisions were originally planned to be mandatory nationwide. Changes to the bill altered the language to only apply to the five Prairie Pothole states (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota) and participation in the program is now at the option of those states’ governors.
In addition, a new program aimed at increasing access for hunters and anglers was included in the bill. Called “Open Fields”, the program would provide modest subsidies for landowners that allowed public hunting and fishing access on their conservation land.
The bill faces a challenge from the Bush administration, which has threatened a veto over the lack of reforms to commodity subsidies and lack of innovation for conservation and nutrition.
With more than a million supporters, Ducks Unlimited is the world’s largest and most effective wetland and waterfowl conservation organization with more than 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.