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Farm Bill Issues

Record landowner demand for CRP Met with extraordinarily low acceptance rate

Secretary Vilsack suggests Congress look at larger CRP in 2018 Farm Bill

 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced today that 800,000 acres will be enrolled through three different components of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Of particular note, USDA’s CRP general sign-up completed at the end of February generated more than 1.8 million acres in offers, but was only able to accept 23 percent of the 26,000 landowner applications because of the program’s 24 million acre cap. As a result, Secretary Vilsack commented on the need for a larger CRP cap to meet landowner demand and natural resource benefits.

 

In addition to the general CRP sign-up, Secretary Vilsack also reported 4,600 additional offers were made for 1 million acres in the new CRP Grasslands program. Only 100,000 acres were accepted for a meager 10 percent acceptance rate. Finally, an additional 330,000 acres were enrolled through continuous CRP sign-ups, which is in addition to last year’s record-setting 860,000 continuous acres enrolled.

 

Vilsack later commented to AgriPulse on Thursday, “When Congress begins to deliberate the 2018 farm bill, they’re going to be faced I think with a demand to rethink the cap on CRP,” Vilsack said. “The deliberation should not begin with ‘You have to save an artificial dollar amount,’ but it should really look at what the demand and need is.”

 

“While we have 800,000 acres of good news today, the larger message is one of missed opportunity,” stated Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice president of governmental affairs. “We had landowners come out in droves to voluntarily make a commitment to wildlife, water, and soil. Instead, America’s most successful conservation program – one with a 30-year track record of wildlife and natural resource benefits – was neutered by a 24 million acre cap.”

 

“As we look toward the 2018 Farm Bill, we will be delivering Secretary Vilsack’s message of a strengthened CRP to Congress. America’s farmers, ranchers, conservationists, and hunters not only need a stronger Conservation Reserve Program, they want a stronger CRP, and the latest sign-up results demonstrate that fact,” added Jim Inglis, Pheasants Forever’s director of governmental affairs.

 

CRP is a voluntary program designed to help farmers, ranchers and landowners protect their environmentally sensitive land. Eligible landowners receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland throughout the duration of 10 to 15 year contracts. Under CRP, landowners plant grasses and trees, and restore wetlands in watersheds across the country. The plantings prevent soil and nutrients from washing into waterways, reduce soil erosion that may otherwise contribute to poor air and water quality, and provide valuable habitat for wildlife. Vegetative cover established on the acreage accepted into the CRP will reduce nutrient and sediment runoff in our nation’s rivers and streams.

Over 100 organizations deliver letter opposing cuts to conservation

 

On Thursday, September 17, more than 100 organizations from around the country delivered a letter urging the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to “protect mandatory funding for farm bill conservation programs, support robust discretionary funding for Conservation Technical Assistance, and reject any attempt to undermine highly erodible land and wetland conservation compliance” in fiscal year (FY) 2016 appropriations legislation. A broad range of groups joined NSAC to send the letter, including the National Farmers Union, National Wildlife Federation, Kansas Rural Center, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, League of Women Voters, and many others.

Congressional appropriators are currently negotiating final appropriations legislation for FY 2016. In previous years, appropriators have used a back-door budget gimmick called “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending” (CHIMPS) to cut farm bill direct spending, which is under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committees, not the Appropriations Committees. For example, the FY 2015 Appropriations Act cut the 2014 Farm Bill’s funding for conservation by over $650 million.

 

In June and July, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees passed FY 2016 agriculture appropriations bills that cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the farm bill Conservation Title, on top of the dramatic reduction in conservation spending already made by the 2014 Farm Bill and sequestration. The proposed FY 2016 cuts would further reduce conservation enrollments by millions of acres and hamper efforts by farmers, ranchers, and foresters to conserve water, maintain their soil, and prepare for extreme weather events.

 

In addition to opposing cuts to mandatory spending for conservation programs, the letter urges appropriators to adopt the Senate funding level of $855 million for discretionary Conservation Operations, which includes Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA). USDA’s ability to deliver conservation programs to farmers and ranchers depends heavily on on-the-ground technical assistance. “We must not hamstring our investment in conservation by under-funding technical assistance,” the letter states.

 

Finally, the letter urges congressional negotiators to reject a controversial policy rider included in the House bill. The rider would delay by one year the implementation of basic soil and water conservation requirements established by the 2014 Farm Bill. When the rider was initially added to the House bill last spring, there was concern that a significant number of producers had missed a June 1 deadline to self-certify compliance with conservation requirements. In the months that followed, USDA took extraordinary steps to address the problem by working with each and every one of the two percent of producers who did not file their self-certification forms on time. In most cases, USDA found that forms were not filed because the producer on record was no longer farming. Among the tiny fraction of active operations that did not initially self-certify, nearly every one has now done so, securing eligibility for taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium assistance.

 

“We believe that the concerns that prompted the policy rider have been addressed administratively and do not require any legislative action,” the letter states.

 

Read our previous blog post for more information on the state of appropriations as we approach the end of the fiscal year.

130 organizations deliver letter opposing cuts to conservation

From National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

 

On Tuesday, May 5, more than 130 organizations from around the country urged the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees to oppose cuts to farm bill conservation funding in fiscal year (FY) 2016 appropriations legislation. The letter was sent by a broad range of groups, including the American Seed Trade Association, National Farmers Union, American Society of Agronomy, Alabama Association of Conservation Districts, National Wildlife Federation, Kansas Rural Center, Chesapeake Bay Foundation and many others in addition to NSAC.

Congressional appropriators are currently drafting their FY 2016 agriculture appropriations bills, which we expect to see sometime in late May or early June. In previous years, appropriators have used a back-door budget gimmick called “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS)” to cut farm bill direct spending, which is under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committees, not the Appropriations Committees. The FY 2015 Appropriations Act, for instance, cut the 2014 Farm Bill’s funding for conservation by nearly $600 million; and the FY 2016 proposal from President Obama would use CHIMPS to cut it even further, by $860 million. These cuts have direct impacts on farmers, ranchers, and foresters across the country. They mean more water pollution, less wildlife habitat, and more expensive environmental mitigation in the future.

“The undersigned organizations oppose re-opening the farm bill and thus urge you to protect farm bill conservation program mandatory funding as you consider agriculture appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2016,” the letter states. “The President’s proposal is shortsighted and would severely limit the capacity of farmers, ranchers, and foresters to conserve water, maintain their soil, and produce abundant food and fiber.”

Even without any additional CHIMPS, mandatory spending for farm bill conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program will be automatically cut by upwards of $250 million through sequestration.

As the Subcommittees develop FY 2016 appropriations bills, NSAC and partners will continue to fight against conservation CHIMPS.

NRCS extends comment period for Agricultural Conservation

 

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Jason Weller recently announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will extend the deadline to provide public comment on the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program’s (ACEP) interim rule until May 28, 2015.

“We extended the comment period for the ACEP rule to give our partners, landowners, and the public additional time to comment on a rule that will be used to implement USDA’s premier conservation easement program on private agricultural lands,” Weller said.

ACEP is designed to help landowners protect working agricultural lands and wetlands.  The 2014 Farm Bill consolidated three previous conservation easement programs into ACEP to make it easier for diverse agricultural landowners to fully benefit from conservation initiatives.

NRCS administers ACEP, a voluntary program created in the 2014 Farm Bill to protect and restore critical wetlands on private and tribal lands through the wetland reserve easement component. ACEP also encourages farmers, ranchers, and non-industrial private forest landowners to keep their private and tribal land in agricultural use through the agricultural land easement component. ACEP also conserves grasslands, including rangeland, pastureland, and shrubland.

The official notice of the proposed ACEP interim rule can be found in the Federal Register. The original deadline date to submit public comments on the ACEP interim rule was Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Electronic comments must be submitted through regulations.gov during the 30-day extended comment period.  Comments also can be hand carried or mailed to Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. NRCS-2014-0011, Regulatory and Agency Policy Team, Strategic Planning and Accountability, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, 5601 Sunnyside Avenue, Building 1-1112D, Beltsville, MD 20705.

To learn about ACEP and other technical and financial assistance available through NRCS conservation programs, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov/GetStarted or your local USDA Service Center.

Farm Bill guide to fish and wildlife conservation now available

From American Bird Conservancy

 

The North American Bird Conservation Initiative has released the 2014 Farm Bill Field Guide to Fish and Wildlife Conservation. This field guide is a tool to assist the staff of federal and state fish and wildlife agencies, nongovernmental conservation organizations, joint ventures, and other conservation partners in implementing Farm Bill conservation programs. It is primarily designed for those who work collaboratively with private landowners and agricultural producers to improve soil health, water quality, as well as fish and wildlife habitat.

This user-friendly guide provides an overview of the Conservation Title in the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as Farm Bill history, program delivery, the role of partnerships, and priority setting. The guide includes case studies and details on the following programs: the Conservation Reserve Program, Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Innovation Grants, Conservation Stewardship Program, Healthy Forests Reserve Program, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program.

Click here to access this guide.

Digging deeper into Continuous CRP enrollments

 

From National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

 

In March, NSAC teamed up with water quality, conservation, and grain and oilseed processor groups to encourage the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to set aside at least a third of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres for Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) including the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and the State Acres for Wildlife (SAFE) program.

This post provides some background and statistical analysis of these special initiatives to help provide more context for the recommendations contained in the recommendations to FSA contained in that letter.

Background in Brief

While no general sign-up for CRP has been scheduled for 2015, farmers and landowners do have ongoing opportunities to enroll acres within the continuous enrollment programs. The CCRP is a voluntary, non-competitive enrollment program that helps protect millions of acres of America’s most environmentally sensitive farmland. The CCRP targets specific blocks of land that are most vulnerable to erosion, key for preventing polluted runoff, and prime acres for wildlife habitat.

In the last five years, over 500,000 acres have been enrolled each year, and current contracts protect over six million acres reducing erosion, improving water quality, and restoring wildlife habitats.

As the name implies, enrollment in the CCRP happens on a continuous basis, and those determined eligible are automatically accepted into the program. This differs from the parent program, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which features a competitive enrollment process with one general sign-up on an occasional basis.

Within the CRP, conservation practices eligible for CCRP include riparian, wetland, and wildlife habitat buffers, filter strips, wetland restoration, grass waterways, shelterbelts, windbreaks, living snow fences, contour grass strips, salt tolerant vegetation, and shallow water areas for wildlife.

In exchange for removing environmentally sensitive land from production, CCRP contracts include an annual rental payment, certain incentive payments, and up to 50 percent cost-share to install the practice.

Acreage-Currently-Enrolled-in-CRP-by-program

 

Regular CCRP Enrollments

Currently, 4.52 million acres are currently enrolled in the mainstem of the CCRP program, with acres enrolled in all 50 states. Top users of the program include producers in Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. Despite the fact that 30 percent of enrollments by number of farm occur in the top two states (IA and IL), looking at each state by total CCRP acres, enrollment is spread fairly evenly across cropland in across the country.

Top-10-States-for-Current-cCRP-Enrollment-by-Number-of-Farms

 

Top Practices

Within the CCRP (including CREP and SAFE — see below), the most popular enhancements are installing riparian buffers and filter strips, creating permanent wildlife habitat, and restoring wetlands.

Top-Practices-By-Continuous-Enrollment

Farmers can protect the environment by placing small portions of their farms in permanent vegetation designed to control or intercept soil, nutrients, and pesticides and to slow wind and snow. Often referred to generically as conservation buffers, these targeted environmental practices can be in-field (e.g., contour grass strips), at the edge of fields (e.g., field borders), or along water bodies (e.g., riparian buffers). The best buffer strategies can remove 50 to 75 percent of nutrients and sediment from water bodies.

Buffers also provide food, cover, and shelter for some types of wildlife and also stabilize streams and reduce water temperature, benefiting fish and other aquatic species. And when used in conjunction with advanced farming practices like conservation tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, and integrated pest management, buffer and related partial field vegetative practices help farmers become sustainable, environmentally and economically.

CCRP has been successful in targeting major erosion and water quality issues without sacrificing the productivity of entire fields. Because practices like Filter Strips make up smaller surface areas, these strategic enrollments have a disproportionately positive impact on stream health. In addition to controlling soil erosion, un-farmed strips of land give farmers access to parts of crop fields previously difficult to reach. Steep hillsides can also benefit from CCRP by installing contour buffers, grass waterways, and filter strips to help with drainage issues.

Ranchers benefit from using riparian buffers to protect from grazing along streams and ponds. Fencing cattle away from the buffer, installing alternative water sources, and planting trees the land adjacent to streams and ponds can help protect the land from erosion.

By enrolling their least productive soils, farmers can curb soil loss while attracting wildlife to their land and bring in additional economic benefits for the landowner. For areas that should never have been farmed to begin with, CCRP can be a useful tool to restore and land and return it back to its natural state.

Some conservation practices are more beneficial for particular regions, and as such are often concentrated in just a few states. For instance, Washington comprises 68 percent of the total acreage of contour grass strips in the US, while 90 percent of salinity reducing vegetation is in Montana and North Dakota and 64 percent of living snow fences are in Minnesota.

Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

An offshoot of the CCRP is the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) under which a State agency and USDA together pay farmers to address targeted conservation issues identified by local, state, or tribal governments or non-governmental organizations. As a result of the added state funding, the average yearly rental payment per acre for CREP is $140, more than cCRP ($102), Farmable Wetland ($115), and General Signup ($51).

 

Top 10 states for CREP rental payments in dollars per acre

Iowa $263.20
Indiana $217.84
Illinois $210.75
Washington $194.37
Ohio $192.95
Kentucky $185.06
Maryland $170.22
New York $142.19
New Jersey $136.96
Idaho $132.77

 

CREP has been successful across the country to team up farmers and ranchers with state and federal efforts to address water quality and wildlife issues of concern at local, state, and regional levels.

▪ In Iowa, CREP is restoring wetlands to reduce nitrogen losses from the U.S. Corn Belt that cause hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. These sites have nearly 2,000 acres of strategically enrolled wetlands plus buffer that are designed to reduce nitrate run-off from over 52,000 acres of tile-drained cropland.

▪ In Missouri, two cities sharing a water supply have gotten 175 area farmers to voluntarily enroll over 6,700 acres in order to protect the high-quality drinking water in their manmade reservoir. To date, this CREP project has resulted in an average 16 percent reduction in pesticide application in the Smithville Lake Watershed.

▪ The New York City Watershed CREP project partners New York farmers with the Watershed Ag Program to maintain and improve the drinking water quality for New York City. By investing $35 million to implement best management practices on 85 percent of the 400 farms in the 500,000-acre watershed, the city was able to avoid building a costly water filtration plant.

Wildlife and Wetlands

There are a number of program initiatives within the CCRP including upland bird habitat buffers, State Acres For Wildlife (SAFE), and pollinator habitat. These targeted initiatives have enhanced wildlife habitat on thousands of acres across the country.

For instance, in South Dakota, these programs have improved the landscape across the state allowing for ducks, pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, wildflowers, and deer to return in greater abundance.

 

Top 5 states for cumulative acres enrolled into CCRP program initiative Upland Bird

Habitat Buffers

IL 64,805
KS 40,457
MO 29,340
IA 25,860
OH 15,676

 

Top 5 states for cumulative acres enrolled into CCRP program initiative State Acres for

Wildlife (SAFE)

ID 106,070
ND 101,777
SD 98,480
TX 87,638
KS 79,216

 

Top 5 states for cumulative acres enrolled into CCRP program initiative

Pollinator Habitat

IA 8,504
IL 8,066
NE 1,653
CO 1,305
ID 630

 

Practices eligible for the SAFE program in order of popularity include installation of grass, trees, wetlands, buffers, and long leaf pine. Idaho, Texas, and South Dakota are top recipients of SAFE contracts, allocating 117,300 acres to the improve habitat for the Columbian Sharp-Tailed Grouse, 122,700 acres for Mixed Grass, and 81,500 acres to for pheasant habitat, respectively.

Specific Wildlife Practices

In November 2014, USDA increased the SAFE acreage allocation by 100,000 acres to 1,350,000 acres. As of January 15, there are nearly one million acres enrolled in the SAFE practices, leaving about 350,000 acres yet to be enrolled. These programs will be open until allocations are reached.

 

Acres allocated and enrolled into SAFE practices

Practice Acres Allocated Total Acres Enrolled % Enrolled Compared to Allocated
Flood-plain wetlands 531,400 292,644 55 %
Bottomland hardwood trees 250,000 112,883 45 %
Non-flood plain and playa wetlands 418,600 327,139 78 %
Upland bird habitat buffers 500,000 246,529 49 %
Longleaf pine plantings 250,000 137,307 55 %
Duck nesting habitat 300,000 258,186 86 %
State acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE) 1,350,000 972,195 72 %
Highly erodible lands 750,000 244,086 33 %
Pollinator habitat 100,000 22,823 23 %

 

Conclusion

Since its inception, CCRP has been a vital tool for landowners to move a small, targeted portion of their land into various types of conservation buffers and habitat for extended periods of time in return for annual rental payments.

With over 6 million acres currently enrolled, USDA’s Farm Service Agency faces critical issues about how to manage the CCRP now that the 2014 Farm Bill has reduced the overall size of CRP in total. A key task will be ensuring sufficient acreage availability to maintain and grow the size of the CCRP over the coming five years to help address critical water quality and wildlife habitat issues.

Farmers and landowners face critical questions as well.

Those with land in the CCRP that is due to expire in the coming years face an important decision about whether to re-enroll for another decade.

Farmers and landowners with whole fields and farms in the regular CRP with contracts that are due to expire also face the question of whether to attempt to re-enroll or put the land back into production. For those choosing the latter course, an attractive option open to them is to keep buffer strips and targeted partial field practices in place through the CCRP while returning other portions of the farm to production. Choosing this option preserves important conservation values even as farms return to crop or livestock production.

Interested farmers and ranchers can learn more about the CCRP and how to apply in NSAC’s Grassroots Guide and can check out a variety of CCRP success stories on FSA’s website.

Breaking New Ground

 

Agricultural producers are reminded to consult with FSA and NRCS before breaking out new ground for production as doing so without prior authorization may put a producer’s federal farm program benefits in jeopardy. This is especially true for land that must meet Highly Erodible Land (HEL) and Wetland Conservation (WC) provisions.

Producers with HEL determined soils must apply tillage, crop residue and rotation requirements as specified in their conservation plan.  

Producers should notify FSA prior to conducting land clearing or drainage projects to ensure compliance.  If you intend to clear any trees to create new cropland, these areas will need to be reviewed to ensure any work will not risk your eligibility for benefits.  

Landowners and operators can complete form AD-1026 Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) and Wetland Conservation (WC) Certification to determine whether a referral to Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is necessary. 

 

2 Million Acres of Wetlands and Fragile Land Go Under the Plow

Analysis reveals hotspots for conversion are hotspots for crop insurance payouts

 

Sara Sciammacco

Environmental Working Group

 

A new analysisreleased by Environmental Working Group shows that 1.9 million acres, or near 3,000 square miles of wetlands and nearby habitat, went under the plow in the United States between 2008 and 2012.

EWG’s researchers found that over the same time period, 5.3 million acres, or 8,300 square miles of highly erodible land – mostly fragile grassland – was also plowed up to grow row crops.

Using modern mapping and geospatial technologies, researchers documented that the most dramatic loss of wetlands occurred in three states – South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota– the core of the critically important Prairie Pothole Region. Exploitation of highly erodible land is more widespread, with 10 states – Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Montana, North Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska – accounting for 57 percent of all the highly erodible land converted to cropland.

The new analysis, titled, “Going, Going, Gone!”, is a follow-up to EWG’s widely cited Plowed Underreport, released in 2012, which found that over the same four years, 23.6 million acres of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands had been converted to row crops.

“By taking a closer look at the data, we were able to reveal with unprecedented precision the ‘hotspots’ where conversion of large blocks of fragile land to row crops is most extensive,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “What’s most troubling is the correlation between these areas and the counties with the highest average crop insurance payouts.”

For an interactive map showing county-by-county wetlands and wetland buffer conversion rates, click here.

For an interactive map showing county-by-county highly erodible land conversion rates, click here.

In particular, the county-by-county mapping analysis shows:

● In the 71 counties that lost more than 5,000 acres of wetlands and wetland buffers, the average crop insurance payout was $10.1 million – more than four times the $2.3 million average across all 3,109 U.S. counties..

● The average crop insurance payout in the 235 counties that were hotspots for conversion of highly erodible land was $5.8 million – two and a half times the national average.

● In the 12 counties that were hotspots for both wetland and highly erodible land conversion, the average payout was $7.5 million – three times the national average.

● The total payout in the 294 counties with the highest rates of conversion of wetlands or highly erodible land was an astounding $8.3 billion.

“The data strongly suggest that over-subsidized crop insurance policies are greasing the wheels of conversion to row crops,” said Cox. “The government is picking up too much of the risk of plowing up and planting fragile land, all at a cost of billions of dollars to taxpayers and untold environmental degradation.”

Taxpayers pay, on average, 60 percent of crop insurance premiums, and in some cases the entire cost. However, premium subsidies are not subject to the same conservation requirements that apply to other farm programs.

The pending Senate-passed version of the farm bill would ensure that farmers take basic steps to protect land in exchange for receiving taxpayer-funded crop insurance subsidies and reduce those subsidies for landowners who plow up native prairie and grassland; the House version would not.

The EWG report also shows just how effective this simple conservation quid pro quo would be in slowing down wetland conversion and protecting millions of acres of fragile land.

It concludes, “Strengthening the conservation compact is the single most important action Congress could take to halt the environmental disaster taking place as millions of acres of environmentally sensitive land go under the plow.”

APPROPRIATIONS:Simpson makes good on threat to zero out conservation programs

Phil Taylor
E&E reporter
Last April, the chairman of the House subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and Forest Service warned outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that some of his favored conservation program might be slashed to meet draconian spending cuts.
“Do we come to the point where we say there are just some things we’re not going to do, and eliminate them, and at least concentrate on the parts that we do well?” Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson said at that hearing (E&E Daily, April 12). “That’s a tough choice.”
Now — more than three months later — the Idaho Republican has made good on that threat.
Simpson’s subcommittee yesterday approved a $24.3 billion fiscal 2014 spending bill that for the first time zeroes out the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, state wildlife grants and the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Fund, among other programs.
“Funding reductions and, yes, even terminations of some programs are necessary in order to provide critical funding for higher-priority human health, public safety and treaty obligations and responsibilities,” an uncharacteristically somber Simpson said during a subcommittee markup of the bill Tuesday (Greenwire, July 23).
“I fully expect to take a lot of heat over these decisions, but my intent is to show what happens when Congress allows mandatory spending to grow and grow, and places the burden of cutting spending solely on the discretionary side,” Simpson said. “It’s an unsustainable pattern that must be addressed, and soon.”
Simpson told reporters in a brief interview off the House floor that his subcommittee’s work — and the appropriations process in general — was being overshadowed by the larger conflict over how to manage the federal deficit.
The cuts to programs like LWCF, which allows for the acquisition of new federal lands, conservation easements on private lands and grants for states to promote urban recreation, were particularly painful for Simpson, who has broken from Republican ranks to support the Obama administration’s call for full funding for the program.
It’s “something that I don’t particularly like, but that was necessary,” he said during the markup.
While House appropriators have cut conservation programs to bare bones in recent appropriations cycles, Democrats, environmental groups and sportsmen said the decision to zero out many of those programs sets a new precedent for the chamber.
Virginia Rep. Jim Moran, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, acknowledged that some of those cuts were unavoidable, considering that Simpson was given a funding allocation more than $5 billion beneath current spending levels.
In addition, Simpson faced pressure to significantly boost wildfire prevention and response — base and emergency wildfire funding is $559 million, or 16 percent, above the fiscal 2013 enacted level — in addition to providing close to half a billion dollars for payments in lieu of taxes, whose mandatory funding expires this year.
But Moran did not hide his frustration that the bill — by his count — eliminates funding for 20 programs while boosting funding for oil and gas development and offering regulatory relief to “the polluters, the grazers [and] the snowmobilers.”
Other programs include Fish and Wildlife Service construction, Forest Service planning, U.S. EPA brownfields and American Indian and memorials programs, according to a listcompiled by Moran’s office.
“This bill is a disgrace,” he said before leaving the markup in protest.
Simpson, who faces a tough primary challenger next year backed by the influential Club for Growth, said in a statement later that he had to distinguish “critical ‘must-do’ priorities,” such as funding American Indian programs, county payments and wildfire funding, from “those that are nice or even very important.”
The House bill, which Simpson predicted would be marked up by the full Appropriations Committee next Wednesday, is not expected to become law.
The discrepancy in overall funding levels between the House and Senate — in addition to a bevy of policy riders in Simpson’s bill — suggests the Congress will again pass a continuing resolution keeping the government funded at current levels.
‘Tough and ugly’
But sportsmen’s and conservation groups said they remained deeply troubled at the signal the House was sending in eliminating programs outright.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Paul Schmidt, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited. “They’ve had some ups and downs, but never that low. You can’t get lower than zero.”
Ducks Unlimited is a leading proponent of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, a program that typically leverages $3 or $4 for every federal dollar to promote the restoration and acquisition of wetlands that provide habitat for waterfowl and flood control and erosion benefits to communities, Schmidt said.
The program is currently funded at roughly $33 million and is capped at $75 million, he said.
The bill also zeroes out funding for state and tribal wildlife grants, he noted. Currently funded at about $60 million, the grants assist states in conserving habitat in order to prevent non-game species from being listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the wide-ranging greater sage-grouse, Schmidt said.
Miles Moretti, president of the Mule Deer Foundation, said eliminating LWCF funding will strand the $900 million that is set aside each year from offshore oil and gas drilling revenues.
“Americans expect offshore oil and gas revenues to go where they were told they would go: protecting working lands, expanding outdoor recreation opportunities, and conserving public land access for future generations,” he said in a statement.
One former House Appropriations Committee aide said he recalled only one time when Congress provided LWCF funding only for agency staff to complete existing projects and land exchanges. He said Congress has never zeroed out the program entirely.
At the end of the hearing, Simpson said critics have neglected the “tough and ugly” funding cuts state legislators have already made all over the country to balance their own budgets in slim fiscal times.
“But we act here like because we’ve got a printing press, we are exempt from making those tough decisions,” he said. “We’re not exempt. We’re $17 trillion in debt.”
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