–By Kellis Moss
Last december, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, commonly known as the 2018 Farm Bill. This five-year authorization is the largest single piece of legislation for conservation funding that Congress writes, and the most recent version is particularly beneficial for wetlands and waterfowl conservation.
What does this mean for ducks and their habitats? Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall explains: "By providing full funding for the conservation title, Congress ensures that these voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs will continue to create opportunities to work with farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the country. Without their cooperation, Ducks Unlimited could not reach our goal of filling the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever."
The Farm Bill covers a wide range of federal food and farm programs, from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to crop insurance and much more. The conservation provisions in the Farm Bill tend to be an area of bipartisan agreement for the authors of the bill. The 2018 Farm Bill was no different, and Ducks Unlimited applauds the bill's champions on both sides of the aisle for making it possible. With the support of DU members and volunteers, members of Congress know the importance of wetlands and waterfowl habitat and recognize the key role this legislation plays in supporting conservation and agricultural production on private lands.
A team of volunteers, staff, and partner organizations worked together to promote DU's 2018 Farm Bill conservation goals. Starting in 2017, DU volunteers and farmers spoke in support of wetlands conservation provisions at congressional listening sessions across the country. These in-district events were a crucial part of the early groundwork to educate members of Congress and their staffs on their home turf.
The House Agriculture Committee held six listening sessions across the country, and Ducks Unlimited was well represented at each stop along the way. When the committee visited Minnesota, DU State Chairwoman Ruth Hoefs spoke about how important conservation is to her personally and to her farm operation. In Illinois, Area Chairman Brad Pastrovich spoke to the committee about conservation and its importance to his farm operations. This early engagement from DU volunteers kicked off advocacy for the 2018 Farm Bill and established a prominent seat at the negotiating table for Ducks Unlimited throughout the process.
In addition, DU members, landowners, and producers took members of Congress and their staffs on field tours to see firsthand the Farm Bill's conservation programs at work. It is one thing to talk about conservation; it's another to walk the land and get mud on your boots while discussing the programs that make it all possible. This leaves a lasting impression. Members of Congress and their staffs who participate in these tours often leave as more dedicated conservationists.
In Arkansas, DU Public Policy Committee member Ashlee Smith guided Senator John Boozman (AR), a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and his staff on a tour of Dick Carmichael's farm. Because the Carmichael farm participates in the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Conservation Reserve Program, tour attendees were able to see how farm production and conservation can work together.
DU members, volunteers, and partners from around the country also flew to Washington, DC, to meet with members of Congress and their staffs to discuss the impact of Farm Bill conservation programs in their states and on their own farms. Farmers, ranchers, and landowners from Michigan, North Dakota, Indiana, and other states spent valuable time making the case for conservation based on their firsthand knowledge and experience with agriculture.
Kenny and Josh Cain, a father and son from Indiana, met with their congressional representatives to discuss the importance of the Conservation Reserve Program to their farming operation. The Sands, Miller, and Faulkner families from North Dakota spoke to their delegation about the vital role that permanent easements have played in their ranching operations. The opportunity for these families to sit down with their members of Congress and tell their personal stories brought DU's priorities to the forefront as Congress began writing the new Farm Bill.
As a result of this advocacy, both the House and Senate versions of the 2018 Farm Bill included solid provisions for conservation. The compromise bill passed by Congress and signed by the president is the strongest Farm Bill for conservation to date. The 2018 Farm Bill expands proven public-private partnerships, preserves the long-standing partnership with agriculture and crop insurance, and increases funding levels for programs to provide many more opportunities to permanently protect wetlands and other waterfowl habitats. This victory resulted from the efforts of many people who demonstrated diligence and enthusiasm for achieving DU's mission.
Ducks Unlimited would like to thank all those who engaged their elected representatives and helped educate members of Congress and other policy makers in Washington about the importance of wetlands and waterfowl conservation. Together, DU staff, volunteers, and partners tell a compelling story. Following are some conservation highlights from the 2018 Farm Bill.
Wetlands embedded within croplands, especially those in the Prairie Pothole Region, are some of the most threatened wildlife habitats on the continent. Conservation compliance requires producers who receive federal crop insurance premium assistance or any other federal farm program support to avoid draining wetlands to produce a commodity crop. In the previous Farm Bill, Congress took a major step forward for conservation when they linked conservation compliance provisions to crop insurance for the first time since 1996. The new Farm Bill upholds conservation compliance and ensures that it will not be weakened, protecting vital prairie wetlands and maintaining the important coalition of crop insurance, commodity, and conservation groups that was established prior to the 2014 Farm Bill. With conservation compliance in place, many highly productive wetlands will continue to be protected.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program
Reauthorization of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is another victory for conservation that continues from the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2018 bill provides mandatory RCPP funding of $300 million per year. With the help of RCPP, Ducks Unlimited's partnership with the USA Rice Federation, known as the Rice Stewardship Partnership, is now in its fifth year. This partnership has saved producers money and provided habitat on more than 500,000 acres of harvested rice fields that are flooded in California and the southern United States. Under a new provision in the 2018 Farm Bill, successful projects like this may be renewed. The new bill also makes several programmatic improvements that provide greater flexibility for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, partners, and producers to more easily implement projects. This will allow DU to expand this proven partnership model to additional priority landscapes.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is one of the largest conservation programs within the Farm Bill. It provides producers cost-share opportunities for farm improvements like fencing, water irrigation, and more. Several new EQIP provisions that will benefit wildlife are included in the new law. First, the amount of annual EQIP funding set aside for wildlife practices was increased from at least 5 percent to at least 10 percent. Second, clarifying language allows contracts of up to 10 years for projects that primarily benefit wildlife to encourage sustained management and increase long-term benefits.
The bill also includes two very exciting new provisions for EQIP that allow for carrying out post-harvest flooding for wintering waterfowl and maintaining small temporary and seasonal wetlands to sustain waterfowl and migratory bird habitat on working croplands. The latter provision will compensate producers who continue to protect wetlands by farming these wetlands if they so choose when they are dry and, more importantly, not draining them to help produce crops when they are wet. This is especially important in the prairie nesting habitats of the Dakotas. Each of these new practices within EQIP should directly impact waterfowl habitat in a positive manner on DU's highest priority landscapes: the Prairie Pothole Region, Mississippi Alluvial Valley, Gulf Coast, and Central Valley of California.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program
Duck hunters who have had the opportunity to hunt flooded timber know how great this habitat can be for waterfowl. Much of this vital habitat is protected by Wetland Reserve Easements through the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Like all Farm Bill conservation programs, these easements are voluntary, incentive-based opportunities for private landowners to protect crucial wildlife habitat. The new Farm Bill provides $450 million in annual funding, an increase of $2 billion over the next 10 years. This will greatly expand opportunities to permanently restore and protect wetlands for waterfowl habitat on former agricultural lands.
In fact, this increase in funding is the largest single conservation program expansion within the 2018 Farm Bill, showing both the demand from landowners and the wide support this program has in Congress. Not only has funding for ACEP been greatly increased, but a 10 percent limit on Wetland Reserve Easement acres within a specific county has been raised to 15 percent, allowing for more easements on priority landscapes in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley and elsewhere.
Conservation Reserve Program
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which had been limited to 24 million acres in the 2014 Farm Bill, will be stepped up to 27 million acres by fiscal year 2023. The Farmable Wetlands Program (FWP) within CRP was also reauthorized with a cap of 750,000 acres. Since many FWP acres are located within the Prairie Pothole Region, this initiative overlaps with DU's objectives on this high-priority landscape. Under the new Farm Bill, CRP allows for more wildlife-friendly grazing opportunities on land enrolled in the program. This should be an incentive for more producers to sign up and will help keep important grass cover on the landscape for nesting waterfowl and other wildlife.
Moreover, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which is a part of CRP, was authorized with new statutory language that adds nongovernmental organizations as eligible partners. That change will allow for greater involvement from Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups in restoring and enhancing grasslands and wetlands for breeding waterfowl. CRP will also continue to provide incentives for protecting high-value wetlands and water-quality improvement practices, maintaining its role as one of the nation's most important conservation programs.
DU volunteers and staff gathered in Washington, DC, in late January to thank their members of Congress for supporting the 2018 Farm Bill and to discuss implementation of this important conservation legislation.
There are numerous improvements in the 2018 Farm Bill that will lead to greater conservation opportunities on agricultural lands across the United States. It's important to remember that this legislation provides hundreds of millions of dollars for waterfowl habitat conservation in addition to money raised by Ducks Unlimited and other partners. This frees up DU staff and vital donations from DU supporters to be used for other conservation opportunities. In the years ahead, Ducks Unlimited staff and volunteers will continue to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure that this new law will be implemented to maximize potential benefits for wetlands and waterfowl.
Kellis Moss is director of public policy in Ducks Unlimited's Washington, DC, office.