Americas New Farm Bill

Changes to Farm Bill programs mean your support for DU’s habitat conservation work is more vital than ever

By Steve Adair, Ph.D., and Neil Shader

Pintails raised on tundra ponds in Alaska take flight with September’s first bitter winds, traveling south to California’s Central Valley where they settle on recently restored shallow wetlands. A mallard hen, after successfully raising her brood in the grasslands of the Dakotas, retreats to the flooded timber of the Mississippi Delta with December’s advancing ice and snow. Canvasbacks reared on prairie potholes splash down on newly established wild celery beds near rehabilitated tributaries of Chesapeake Bay. What do these birds have in common? They all depend on America’s farmers and ranchers during some phase of their annual cycle.

The composition and management of our nation’s agricultural lands greatly affect duck populations. Most important are the grasslands of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) and America’s diverse array of wetlands. PPR grasslands provide quality nesting cover for breeding waterfowl, and wetlands nourish birds throughout their migratory cycle. That’s why Ducks Unlimited’s staff, volunteers, and partners invest so much time and energy in the Farm Bill. DU’s approach to the Farm Bill is pragmatic: We realize that quality cropland will be devoted to providing food, fiber, and fuel for our nation. We also realize that not all ground is suitable for crop production. Some of it is too rocky, steep, wet, or dry to reliably produce a crop; hence, DU’s commonsense approach of “Farm the Best and Conserve the Rest.”

During the past six years, Ducks Unlimited has worked with Congress and the administration to maintain and strengthen Farm Bill provisions that benefit waterfowl. While the Farm Bill passed this May by the House and Senate contains some positive elements, when evaluated in its entirety, it is a step backwards for waterfowl, grasslands, and wetlands. Key conservation programs were either reduced from previous levels or rendered ineffective by program rules. Here’s how the new Farm Bill affects the habitats vital to waterfowl.

Grasslands

The remaining 22 million acres of native prairie in the U.S. portion of the PPR produce the majority of the fall flight from this country each year and serve as the backbone of a robust ranching industry. Unfortunately, this native prairie habitat base is being whittled away, the victim of drought-tolerant crop varieties, high commodity prices, increasing demand for food, and federal policy that encourages farming marginal cropland. The PPR has already lost 70 percent of it’s native grassland, and DU researchers have documented annual loss rates of up to 2 percent of this habitat in the heart of the “duck factory.” Two percent may not sound high, but when 1 percent of native prairie produces 25,000 ducks, it equates to 50,000 fewer ducks than the year before.

A recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that South Dakota counties with high rates of native grassland conversion received crop insurance and disaster assistance payments that were at least 12 times higher than in traditionally cropped counties. The GAO report concluded that federally subsidized crop insurance and disaster payments are encouraging conversion of native prairie to marginal cropland.

Armed with this knowledge, DU joined concerned ranchers and other partners to develop and promote a “Sodsaver” provision for the Farm Bill. This provision would discourage plowing of native prairie by removing crop insurance, disaster payments, and other select subsidies from newly broken grassland across the country. Both the House and Senate included mandatory, nationwide versions of Sodsaver in their original bills. The conference report, however, adopted language that made the provision apply only to the PPR states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa) and made participation optional at the governor’s discretion. DU scientists estimate that an additional 3.3 million acres of native prairie will be lost in the next five years if the governors of these states do not opt into Sodsaver. Considered along with other provisions that encourage cultivation, this estimate is likely conservative.

Another program that targets protection of native grassland fared better than Sodsaver in the final bill. The Grasslands Reserve Program (GRP), which had expired, was reauthorized. Under the new Farm Bill, 1.22 million additional acres can be enrolled. This has been a very popular program, reaching its five-year enrollment cap in just four years during the life of the 2002 Farm Bill. Since inception, GRP has protected 2 million acres across the nation through easements and rental agreements. However, only 192,000 of those acres have been enrolled in the PPR states. DU looks forward to working with the administration to increase allocation of GRP acres in the prairie pothole states.

Restored grasslands on cultivated landscapes can provide quality nesting habitat for waterfowl. The success of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has proved this point each year since it was first established in the 1985 Farm Bill. The safer nesting and brood-rearing habitats provided by CRP add about 2.2 million ducks to the fall flight each year.

CRP is also responsible for more than 13.5 million pheasants, 170,000 miles of protected streams, and millions of tons of topsoil that are maintained on restored grasslands enrolled in the program. Despite all the proven benefits of CRP, the new Farm Bill reduced the current authorized acreage of 39.2 million acres by more than 18 percent. This acreage reduction will likely result in smaller populations of waterfowl and other wildlife and will lead to increased topsoil erosion. It will also decrease the numbers of farmers and ranchers who can assist their land stewardship efforts through this program. Prices for corn, wheat, and other commodities have risen dramatically, increasing cropland rental rates, but CRP rental rates have been slow to adjust, discouraging re-enrollment by landowners who can get more money planting crops. DU biologists estimate that of the 7.4 million acres currently enrolled in the PPR only 4 million will remain by 2012 if the rental rates do not become more competitive.

While agricultural policy has been a dominant influence on the rural landscape for the past century, a new force is emerging—energy policy, in the form of mandates and incentives for renewable sources including solar power, wind energy, and ethanol for liquid fuel. To date, the ethanol industry has been dominated by corn and fostered by federal subsidies and existing technology. In the Energy Title of the 2008 Farm Bill, the tax credit for corn-based ethanol was reduced from $0.51 per gallon to $0.45 per gallon, while a $1 per gallon credit was established for cellulosic ethanol production. Because grasslands are viewed as a significant source of cellulosic ethanol feedstock, this shift in emphasis may encourage restoration of some marginal cropland to grass. Advancements in cellulosic ethanol technology coupled with new incentives have the potential to add significant grassland acreage to the PPR.

GRP and incentives for cellulosic ethanol will likely protect and restore several thousand acres of prairie grassland over the life of the new Farm Bill. However, these programs are not large enough to offset the combination of millions of acres of native prairie that will be lost if Sodsaver is not adopted by PPR governors and millions of acres of grassland that will be lost from CRP.

The net result is a significant loss of nesting cover in the most important breeding area for North America’s waterfowl. To help counter these changes, Ducks Unlimited will elevate the importance of its other prairie habitat programs to help maintain the region’s duck production capacity.

Wetlands

Healthy and abundant wetlands are vital to North America’s waterfowl. They nourish breeding hens, provide food and cover for broods, and sustain adult birds across their migration and wintering grounds. Since settlement, the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, has lost 54 percent of its original wetlands. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, almost half a million acres of wetlands were being lost annually with cropland conversion accounting for more than 430,000 acres per year. The wetland loss rate has now slowed to about 80,000 acres per year. The lower 48 states currently contain 105 million acres of wetlands. After many years of losing wetlands, our national strategy now is to achieve a net gain in wetland area. Programs in the Farm Bill that discourage wetland drainage and incentivize wetland restoration have been important in pursuing this net gain goal.

One of the most successful programs for restoring wetlands during the past 18 years has been the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). WRP pays wetland restoration costs and provides landowners an easement payment to protect this habitat either for 30 years or in perpetuity. WRP has been extremely popular, and landowner interest has exceeded program availability by 3 to 1. Almost 2 million acres have been enrolled in the program nationwide since inception, most of which are wetlands protected in perpetuity. WRP, like GRP, had expired and was reauthorized in the new Farm Bill. While the 2002 Farm Bill authorized enrollment of up to 250,000 WRP acres per year, the 2008 bill reduced that authority to 153,000 acres per year.

WRP has been especially popular in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley where almost 600,000 acres have been enrolled, providing resources to help sustain millions of waterfowl through winter. Applications for WRP in the Mississippi Valley and other important waterfowl areas have waned in recent years because of changes in the appraisal process used to value easement offers. Wisconsin, for example, saw enrollments in WRP drop from 3,000 acres in 2005 to only 30 in 2006. In Mississippi, the drop was even more dramatic, going from 6,400 acres to zero between 2005 and 2006. Unfortunately, problems with the appraisal process were not completely eliminated in the new bill.

The loss of WRP acres and new limitations and eligibility requirements will stall progress toward achieving a net gain in wetland acres. This will have impacts not only on waterfowl but also on the important functions wetlands provide. Many of the lands flooded in the Mississippi Valley this spring could have been enrolled in WRP. This would have reduced property damage and federal disaster costs.

In addition to grassland restoration practices, there are also several wetland restoration options with CRP. Historically, some of these practices have restored substantial acres of wetlands. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program has been especially important in restoring riparian areas along tributaries of Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. As water quality improves in these tributaries, aquatic vegetation, which is high quality food for waterfowl, returns along with dozens of species of fish and wildlife. While these wetland restoration options continue in the new Farm Bill, sign-ups are plagued by low rental rates compared to profits from cultivation, just as with grassland restoration practices.

A disincentive established in the 1985 Farm Bill that withholds certain farm program benefits from producers who drain wetlands was continued in the new Farm Bill. Called Swampbuster, this provision should continue to discourage efforts to convert wetlands into flood-prone, marginal cropland.

Additional Farm Bill Programs

In addition to habitat conservation programs, the new Farm Bill extended a much needed tax provision to help private landowners protect their land. This provision provides enhanced tax incentives to landowners who voluntarily protect their property in perpetuity through donated conservation easements. These conservation easement tax incentives originally expired in December 2007, but will now be available for another two years.

Congress also included a new program to encourage public hunting and fishing on private lands by paying landowners for access. Called Open Fields, the program is designed to support voluntary, state-run programs that provide incentives to private landowners who allow public hunting and fishing access on their land. The program will further benefit rural economies, which are the primary beneficiaries of the $76 billion that sportsmen pump into the nation’s economy every year.

Efforts to restore Chesapeake Bay also received a boost in the Farm Bill. The Chesapeake Bay Watershed Program was authorized $372 million over the next five years to supplement ongoing conservation efforts in the region. This money will help farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices on agricultural lands that improve water quality and benefit waterfowl, fish, and other wildlife.

Looking Ahead

Taken as a whole, the 2008 Farm Bill did not meet Ducks Unlimited’s hopes for promoting sustainable land use and providing waterfowl habitat. The overriding concerns for lawmakers in crafting this bill were food shortages in some parts of the world and high domestic prices of groceries and gasoline, all occurring during an election year. While the Farm Bill will continue to provide some quality waterfowl habitat, it will not be as strong a contributor as in the past.

Although the Farm Bill was less than waterfowlers hoped for, thanks to the help of Ducks Unlimited members and volunteers, the legislation includes some benefits for waterfowl and wetlands. More than 14,000 DU supporters visited Capitol Hill or made phone calls, wrote letters, and sent e-mails to their representatives and senators to stress the importance of conservation in the Farm Bill. Without this help, the Farm Bill could have been a much less friendly bill for conservation.

Ducks Unlimited would like to thank those who took action for Farm Bill conservation, and remind all waterfowlers that while one battle is over, the crusade for conservation continues. DU supporters’ voices carry an incredible weight with members of Congress. By periodically keeping in touch with your members of Congress through e-mail, a phone call, or a visit to a campaign stop or town hall meeting, you can ensure that Ducks Unlimited’s conservation priorities are kept front and center.

Like any wise investor who wants his or her portfolio to weather downturns and achieve growth over the long term, Ducks Unlimited’s conservation efforts are diversified. Programs in key wintering areas work on large expanses of coastal marsh and cornerstone public areas in addition to private agricultural lands. DU’s efforts on the breeding grounds include the Canadian prairies and parklands, where nesting cover in the form of restored pastures and winter wheat have been increasing. Farther north, in the boreal forest, there is a greater understanding of important waterfowl areas and increased efforts by DU, native communities, and the Canadian government to protect these areas.

On the U.S. prairies, hundreds of ranchers would like to protect their grasslands with perpetual conservation easements. Without an effective Sodsaver, enrolling these easements becomes even more urgent. Ducks Unlimited donors can rise to this opportunity by increasing contributions to the North American Grasslands Initiative (ducks.org/WetlandsForTomorrow) to accelerate DU’s rate of grassland protection. While CRP has provided approximately 7.4 million acres of nesting cover on the U.S. prairies, the impending decline in acres was foreshadowed over the past six years by changes to the general sign-up and undersubscribed re-enrollment offers. In response, Ducks Unlimited has been increasing investments in other components of its nesting-cover portfolio.

Winter wheat, which is being diligently promoted by DU agronomists because it is not disturbed in spring, is the only component of the U.S. wheat crop that has shown long-term growth. While winter wheat does not provide the entire suite of habitat that native prairie does, it is much better than spring crops. Studies have found that mallards and northern pintails nesting in winter wheat frequently achieve nest success rates of 20 percent. Last year winter wheat reached 300,000 acres on the U.S. prairies. DU’s long-term goal is for winter wheat to comprise 20 percent of the total wheat crop on the U.S. prairies, which at today’s acreages would equal almost 1 million acres.

Other markets for energy crops are also promoting the preservation and restoration of grasslands on the prairies. Cellulosic ethanol faces a number of hurdles related to transport, processing, and production, but if field practices are adopted that leave sufficient residual cover, nesting waterfowl could benefit.

Further along is the worldwide carbon market, which recognizes that protected and restored grasslands capture and store atmospheric carbon. DU has entered into business ventures that protect wetlands and grasslands in exchange for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Several analysts predict that carbon will eventually be the largest commodity market in our nation and indeed the world, and DU is already ahead of that curve.

While conservationists did not get all that waterfowl needed from the 2008 Farm Bill, we remain determined and resilient. Ducks Unlimited will continue to purchase grassland easements, seek donated easements, and encourage waterfowl-friendly crops as well as continue our traditional wetlands restoration work. Energy and carbon markets are already providing more habitat, and these efforts hold great potential for the future. By remaining diligent and by fostering and seizing future opportunities, we will weather this downturn in the Farm Bill sector of our conservation portfolio and capitalize on other opportunities to achieve gains for waterfowl.

Dr. Steve Adair is director of DU’s Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, North Dakota.