Special Report: Ducks the Farm Bill

Farming For Ducks

By Steve Adair, Ph.D.

Vital Farm Bill programs contribute toward the conservation goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan

The primary impetus for the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) adopted in 1986 was to organize partners in Canada, the United States, and Mexico around a shared goal of restoring waterfowl populations to levels observed in the 1970s. To achieve this ambitious goal, architects of the plan knew that limited resources would have to be focused on the landscapes most critical to sustaining ducks and geese throughout their annual cycle.

The plan also recognized that success required the coordination of public and private partners working in key landscapes to increase funding levels, accelerate habitat delivery, and improve the scientific foundation of the plan. Although the plan welcomed the involvement of all stakeholders in regional "joint ventures," the primary partners at its inception were wildlife managers from state and federal agencies, biologists from conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, and private landowners interested in preserving the natural amenities where they lived.

In 1989, Congress passed and President Bush signed the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), authorizing a key federal source of funds to augment duck stamp revenue for the implementation of NAWMP. NAWCA proved very effective at expanding conservation of important landscapes in all three countries, not only with federal dollars but also by requiring that grant applicants match those dollars. This matching requirement spurred fund-raising efforts among private partners and allocations by state agencies to wetlands and waterfowl conservation.

As joint ventures became better organized and momentum built toward achieving the plan's goals, much progress was made. Conservation easements emerged as effective tools for protecting habitat from loss and degradation. Hundreds of wetlands were restored on public lands. Through incentive-based programs, privately owned lands were enhanced to improve habitat for waterfowl and many other species of wetland-dependent wildlife. As a testament to this progress, NAWMP partners have now perpetually protected 1.5 million acres of wetlands and 1.2 million acres of grassland in the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) through fee title acquisitions and conservation easements.

As NAWMP and NAWCA were being launched, there was an important simultaneous development in Congress regarding our nation's agricultural programs. The 1985 Farm Bill established the Swampbuster provision and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Swampbuster was a clear recognition of the historic plight of wetlands and their value to society within our nation's agricultural policy. Under Swampbuster, farm program benefits such as loan deficiency payments and crop insurance are withheld from any producer who drains a wetland to grow commodity crops. In this way, Swampbuster provides a powerful disincentive for draining wetlands. A recent analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) suggests that without Swampbuster, thousands of small temporary and seasonal wetlands in the U.S. PPR would be vulnerable to drainage, which could potentially reduce breeding duck populations there by 38 percent.

CRP was initially developed to combat soil erosion and control supplies of surplus commodity crops. Originally authorized at 45 million acres, CRP targeted the restoration of grasslands and wetlands across the nation under 10- or 15-year rental contracts. In 1990, the designation of the U.S. PPR as a National Conservation Priority Area for CRP was a significant enhancement to the program. Under this designation, contract offers from the PPR received an additional 25 points in the environmental benefits scoring system for CRP, increasing their probability of being accepted into the program.

This recognition of the national importance of restoring wetland/grassland complexes in the PPR represented a major alignment of agricultural policy with NAWMP. While the architects of NAWMP clearly recognized that improved conservation of private lands was vital to reaching the plan's goal, they were not specific on how this could be done. The plan states, "Financial incentives may be needed to encourage farmers and ranchers to manage their lands for waterfowl production." CRP has become one of the best tools for providing those incentives to farmers and ranchers to restore waterfowl habitat, especially on the prairies.

Research by the USFWS has shown that duck nest success in the PPR of the Dakotas and Montana is 46 percent higher with CRP on the landscape and that the current acreage of CRP there is adding an average of 2.2 million ducks to the fall flight annually. Ducks Unlimited has been a strong proponent of CRP, advocating the program on Capitol Hill and helping deliver wetland and grassland restorations in the PPR.

In 1990, the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) was added as another conservation program under the Farm Bill. WRP established an option for producers to restore wetlands on marginal, flood-prone lands. WRP provides an easement payment and cost share to restore the wetlands commensurate with the term of the easement (100 percent for perpetual easements; 75 percent for 30-year easements). Since its inception, WRP has added 1.6 million acres of wetlands and associated uplands in the United States. This acreage has been most significant in key wintering and migration areas identified by NAWMP like the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Central Valley, Rainwater Basin, and Great Lakes. Ducks Unlimited biologists and engineers have helped ensure the implementation of WRP by promoting the program to landowners, assisting with applications and project designs, and conducting restoration on the landscapes most important for waterfowl.

Collectively, CRP, WRP, and other incentive-based Farm Bill conservation programs have greatly bolstered progress toward NAWMP goals. These programs have become primary tools for providing incentives to farmers and ranchers to restore waterfowl habitat. Swampbuster has proved to be an effective disincentive against drainage, which has allowed wetland habitat added through CRP and WRP to represent real gains on agricultural lands. Because of the significant contributions of Farm Bill programs to NAWMP, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) staff have joined many of the joint ventures around the country as full partners in the plan's efforts.

While habitat added through Farm Bill programs has provided a real boost for waterfowl populations over the past 20 years, many of the gains have not been secured for the long term. CRP contracts extend for only 10 to 15 years. There are currently 8.1 million acres of CRP enrolled in the PPR, and the contracts on 79 percent of those acres will expire between 2007 and 2010. Under the current Farm Bill, CRP contract holders are being provided the option to re-enroll (new 10- or 15-year contracts) or extend (two- to five-year continuations) contracts based on their environmental benefits scores. If most landowners accept these re-enrollments and extensions, DU and its partners will have more time to better secure this valuable waterfowl habitat.

Maintaining the waterfowl benefits of CRP will require that it is reauthorized in the upcoming 2007 Farm Bill and that its scoring system recognizes the value of wetland/grassland complexes in the PPR. Given emerging energy markets and economic vitality concerns in rural America, policymakers may need to look for more long-term ways to retain the wildlife habitat values of CRP while allowing the land to be used responsibly for grazing, haying, and grass-based energy crops. DU will need the voices of its members to remind Congress that conservation is a continuing process, not a threshold that, once achieved, can be ignored or set aside. Please look for "Take Action" alerts on the DU website for timely requests to contact your representatives in Washington, D.C.

WRP has experienced its own recent challenges. Despite the success and popularity of the program, congressional appropriations for WRP have fallen well below authorized levels every year since the 2002 Farm Bill was signed into law. A recent review of how USDA conducts its appraisals for easements has prompted the agency to explore alternative methods that may result in future offers not being as attractive to landowners who want to restore wetlands.

DU is working with the administration to find solutions to WRP appraisals that will provide fair and consistent offers for the land-use changes that the program is seeking. The upcoming 2007 Farm Bill will be crucial to the future of WRP. It is vital that Congress reauthorizes the program at levels consistent with landowner interest. In crafting the 2007 bill, there may be opportunities to make WRP more landowner friendly by incorporating compatible uses into the easements and their valuations, which could increase the attractiveness of the program in places like the PPR.

While the success of Swampbuster is evident by the wetland gains that have occurred across agricultural lands, it is periodically challenged in some intensively farmed areas where small, temporary wetlands are viewed as nuisance areas. A relatively new practice called pattern tiling has emerged as a new threat to wetlands. This practice places drainage pipe in the uplands surrounding a wetland, intercepting runoff that would normally fill the basin. Because there are no actions to the wetland directly, pattern tiling does not constitute a Swampbuster violation. Given recent Supreme Court decisions that have weakened the protection of isolated wetlands, which are critical habitat for waterfowl, it is essential that Swampbuster be retained in the 2007 Farm Bill and that loopholes indirectly allowing drainage of wetlands be tightened.

The 2007 Farm Bill will be a challenging endeavor. Unlike several previous Farm Bills, federal deficits are creating a budgeting climate that may not allow large increases in acreage and spending caps for many of the conservation programs that have proved so valuable to waterfowl and other wildlife. Growing interest in easing our nation's dependence on foreign oil with crops that produce ethanol and biodiesel may place increasing demands on wetlands and grasslands. As the effectiveness of Farm Bill conservation programs has become increasingly well known, many other conservation interests have begun to look to the Farm Bill in order to address habitat needs of other declining wildlife species and additional important environmental concerns such as clean water and clean air. This forces policymakers to balance the demands of multiple constituencies while drafting and implementing Farm Bill conservation programs.

The challenge for DU and its partners is to retain in the 2007 Farm Bill the gains that have been made for waterfowl. Programs like CRP and WRP that restore large expanses of grasslands and wetlands must be maintained. And disincentives like Swampbuster must remain strong to ensure that more habitat isn't lost to drainage than is gained through NAWMP and other conservation efforts. A new Sodsaver provision to slow the plowing of native prairie is also needed to prevent unintended consequences of the financial safety nets established to support farming on productive croplands (see "Plowing the Prairie" in the July/August issue of Ducks Unlimited and go to www.ducks.org/sodsaver). Such a Farm Bill in 2007 will ensure that the nation's agricultural policy and the dedicated staff implementing it remain strong partners in NAWMP.

Dr. Steve Adair is director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains Office in Bismarck, North Dakota.