The Farm Bill, Ducks and You

DU members must act now to save agricultural conservation programs that help sustain waterfowl populations

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.

Finding Innovative Conservation Solutions

DU and Bayer CropScience work with prairie farmers to plant winter wheat, which provides more secure upland nesting cover for ducks than spring-seeded crops. (Photo Credit: Ron Spomer, DU)
Market forces are also working against conservation efforts on the prairies and in other high-priority waterfowl areas. High commodity prices are encouraging many farmers to put their expiring CRP land back into row crop production. Clearly, innovative conservation solutions are needed to sustain landowner interest in CRP and other agricultural conservation programs, especially when payments offered by these programs could be frozen or reduced in the future.

In North Dakota, for example, approximately 132,000 acres were accepted this past year for CRP enrollment, but this fall contracts will expire on some 400,000 acres of CRP land. Research conducted by DU in the Dakotas has revealed that waterfowl nesting success is more closely correlated with the amount of grass cover on the landscape than the height of the grass in the immediate nesting area. As a result, DU supports changing CRP rules to allow cattle grazing on land enrolled in the program. This would provide an additional economic incentive for producers to keep these working lands in CRP, while also helping to ensure that large blocks of grass cover remain intact on the prairies.

Similar changes can be made to WRP that would make this program more cost effective and attractive to landowners. For example, the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program Reserved Grazing Rights Pilot was launched in the 2008 Farm Bill. Under this agreement, landowners receive a smaller payment for their WRP easement in return for grazing rights. Additional changes could accommodate haying as another reserved right, saving even more money while also generating more support for the program in the ranching community, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West.

Another innovative approach would be to include a "Sodsaver" provision in the new Farm Bill. Simply put, this provision would eliminate federal subsidy support, in particular crop insurance and disaster payments, on any new acreage brought into crop production by converting grassland. While remaining prairie grasslands typically have light, rocky soils that produce poor crop yields, substantial federal price supports and disaster assistance continue to offer economic incentives for landowners to convert native prairie and other grasslands into cropland. The USDA's Farm Services Agency reports that more than 360,000 acres of prairie grasslands were converted to cropland from 2002 to 2007, and these losses have likely increased significantly over the past five years.

Under Sodsaver, landowners would still have the freedom to convert grassland on their property to row crop production, but the profitability of growing crops on the land would depend entirely on free-market economics. Why is this innovative? Sodsaver would require no funding from the federal treasury. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Sodsaver would actually save taxpayers at least $125 million each year, and depending on how the provision is implemented, could save the treasury even more. Most important, Sodsaver would significantly reduce the loss of native prairie, saving taxpayers money as well as protecting some of the most productive landscapes for breeding waterfowl on this continent.

What You Can Do

To ensure that DU's conservation goals are met and our waterfowling heritage is protected, every DU member must let their elected officials know that they support agricultural conservation programs like CRP and WRP and a Sodsaver provision in the next Farm Bill. As a taxpayer and voter, you have great power if you choose to use it. While we can all agree that the current fiscal situation of our federal government is untenable and that spending cuts and restraint need to be exercised for the good of our children and grandchildren, the cost of Farm Bill conservation programs is only a drop in the bucket compared to expenditures on other programs. Conservation also provides a high return on investment for taxpayers. By providing habitat for wildlife and places for people to pursue outdoor recreation, CRP, WRP, and other agricultural conservation programs are also vital to the nation's hunting and fishing economy, which generates more than $80 billion a year and supports more than 1.6 million jobs. Deep cuts to agricultural conservation programs will not only adversely affect populations of waterfowl and other wildlife, but also the economy, especially in rural areas, while doing little to reduce the national debt.
Friends in High Places This past June, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow was the featured guest at the Michigan DU state convention. A longtime supporter of DU and conservation, Senator Stabenow is chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and will be directly involved in writing the 2012 Farm Bill.

"Input from sportsmen and -women and groups like Ducks Unlimited is critical as we find practical, workable solutions together that address the natural resources challenges that we're facing here in Michigan and that stretch every taxpayer dollar to get the absolute best return on our investment," Senator Stabenow said, while addressing the convention.

Support from influential members of Congress like Senator Stabenow will be essential to achieving a wildlife-friendly Farm Bill in 2012.

There are several ways that you can take action to save Farm Bill conservation programs. One of the best ways is to write letters or send e-mails to your members of Congress.

Phone calls also carry a lot of weight. Congressional staff will write down your opinions and make sure your elected officials are aware of them. However, the best way to influence members of Congress is to meet them in person. When you take the time to schedule a meeting with a representative or senator, he or she will understand that this is an important issue to you and other likeminded constituents.

This is not the first time in our nation's history that we have faced tough times, and it won't be the last. Even during the Great Depression, however, our nation's hunter-conservationists were thinking ahead. In 1934, sportsmen lobbied for and helped pass the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, requiring waterfowlers to purchase a federal duck stamp each year to hunt ducks and geese.

Imagine the leadership that was required to create a new fee on anything during the Great Depression, let alone duck hunting? Nevertheless, waterfowlers of that era recognized that new funding was required to conserve sufficient habitat to sustain healthy populations of ducks and geese. Today's waterfowlers and other conservationists face a similar challenge with the 2012 Farm Bill. To ensure a secure future for waterfowl, and our waterfowling traditions, we must act now. And just like our waterfowling forefathers of the 1930s, we can't afford to wait.

Dan Wrinn is director of public policy at DU's Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, D.C.
New Partnerships Benefit Migratory Birds With state and federal budgets tightening, DU is working harder than ever to maximize limited resources available for wetlands and waterfowl conservation. In 2010, DU joined the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in a partnership to provide alternative seasonal wetland habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds potentially affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Known as the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative (MBHI), this partnership provided 470,000 acres of seasonal wetland habitat in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.

MBHI was so successful that the NRCS announced in August that it will expand this work into the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Iowa and Minnesota. Through the new Northern Plains Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, the NRCS will invest $10.8 million in restoring and enhancing vital wetland habitat in these key waterfowl production states.