Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., signaled last week that the best conservation and forestry advocates can expect out of the next farm bill is protection of programs at current funding levels, while government officials and stakeholders touted the accomplishments of those programs.
In an opening statement at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on conservation and forestry issues in the next farm bill, Roberts said, “As our committee works to craft the next farm bill, we will find ourselves in a very tough budgetary environment. I know many within the conservation community will be looking to increase funding for programs that experienced cuts in the 2014 farm bill.
“Congress will have difficult decisions to make as it tries to figure out how to address the needs, but I urge everyone, at the very least, to work to protect conservation and consider working within the confines of the existing programs,” Roberts added.
Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., did not directly address the funding level for conservation and forestry programs. But she said that, while “farmers, ranchers and foresters are the original conservationists and our first responders to sustain the health and diversity of our natural resources ... they should not have to bear this responsibility alone. The farm bill provides important conservation and forestry tools that help farmers and foresters keep our water clean, improve the resiliency of our landscapes, and protect habitat for wildlife.”
Stabenow added, “I’ve always said that the farm bill is a jobs bill – and conservation and forestry is no exception. ... As we look to the 2018 farm bill, we must continue to support smart forestry and conservation practices that are helping the environment and our economy.”
The Forest Service gets only a small amount of funding and policy direction through the farm bill, but Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell noted that the 2014 bill’s forestry title had provided authority to address ecological restoration, support to communities, and reduce the risk of wildfires. The hearing did not focus, however, on the longstanding issue of how to pay for fighting wildfires.
Jimmy Bramblett, deputy chief of programs for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), testified that “America’s farmers have been able to achieve tremendous success through the 2014 farm bill’s conservation title.”
Bramblett cited accomplishments under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program and said, “Our latest science-based modeling under the Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) and assessment through the Conservation Effects Assessment Program (CEAP) continues to show voluntary, incentive-based conservation is effective.”
He also noted a series of conservation partnerships in which NRCS is involved and said that demand for conservation easements exceeds funding.
Even though the Trump administration has recently separated NRCS from the Forest Service by moving it from under the Agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and environment to the undersecretary for farm production and conservation, Bramblett noted, “The U.S. Forest Service and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are working together to improve the health of forests where public and private lands meet, especially in locations where insects and drought conditions have contributed to wildfire risk. Through the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership, the two USDA agencies are restoring landscapes, reducing wildfire threats to communities and landowners, protecting water quality and enhancing wildlife habitat.”
Misty Jones, director of the Conservation and Environmental Programs Division at the Farm Service Agency, which runs the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), said the program “improves water quality, reduces soil erosion, and restores habitat for pollinators, ducks, pheasants, turkey, quail, deer and other wildlife. In doing so, CRP spurs hunting, fishing, recreation, tourism, and other economic activity across rural America.”
Jones noted that 23.5 million acres are enrolled in CRP contracts – 13.4 million acres below peak enrollment in 2007 and just short of the 24 million-acre cap established in the 2014 farm bill. CRP contracts on 2.5 million acres (combined general and continuous) are set to expire September 30, 2017.
Interest in enrolling in CRP has risen since commodity prices fell, but “FSA has also heard from beginning farmers that it can be difficult to compete for farmable land in certain acres, given the level of CRP rental rates,” Jones said. “… As land prices go down over time, rates may be temporarily higher than the market, and conversely, as land prices go up, rates may be temporarily lower than the market. We try to minimize this lag by updating rates as soon as better data is available.”
A second panel of users of USDA forestry and conservation programs testified about their merits and funding needs.
Paul Dees, chairman of the board of Delta Wildlife, a Mississippi group, said that both EQIP and CSP need expansion and more funding in the next farm bill.
Steve Horning, a Watertown, S.D., accountant whose love of hunting has led him to buy 10,000 acres of land that is used for farming and hunting, said that the acreage cap on the CRP needs to be increased because so few applications are being accepted. In 2016, landowners offered 43,000 acres to the CRP in South Dakota, but only two contracts totaling 101 acres were accepted, Horning said.
Horning said he follows the model of “farm the best and conserve the rest.”
Barbara Downey, a Kansas rancher testifying on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said her family had success using conservation programs, “but just because this system works for us does not mean it’s right for everybody. It’s important that we keep these programs funded to safeguard their continued success, and above all else – these programs must stay voluntary. A one-size-fits-all approach that accompanies top-down regulation does not work in my industry. If these programs were to become mandatory, the rules and regulations that farmers and ranchers would be subjected to would make it harder for them to utilize the unique conservation practices that help their individual operations thrive.”
Adam Sharp, executive vice president of Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said USDA conservation programs have been vital in helping Ohio farmers address the state’s runoff and water quality issues.
Salem Saloom, a tree farmer from Alabama, testifying on behalf of the American Forest Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation, urged the continuation of a range of NRCS and forestry programs and asked that tree lands be allowed to continue enrollment in the CRP.
Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager of F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls, Mont., and a member of the board of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, which represents purchasers of Forest Service timber from 32 states, said the Forest Service has been slow to implement the authorities granted in the 2014 farm bill. Roady made a number of recommendations that he said “would allow the Forest Service to rapidly propose, analyze, and implement needed forest management projects across the landscape.”
Christopher Topik, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests program, said that funding for USDA conservation programs and the forestry elements within them should be maintained.
– Reporting by Zachary Silver, intern for Jerry Hagstrom
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