Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recently highlighted the Administration's farm bill proposals related to conservation. Johanns pointed out that a key theme throughout the conservation title is simplification and streamlining of programs, while increasing funding for conservation by $7.8 billion over 10 years.
"In the area of conservation, we heard during our Farm Bill Forums broad acknowledgement of our successes, but also suggestions to make the programs more user-friendly," said Johanns.
"We are proposing to do just that and to bolster our commitment to conservation through the largest increase in funding for any title within our farm bill proposals."
Under current law, there are six cost-share programs, all of which have separate eligibility requirements, sign-up periods, regulations and applications. They include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, the Ground and Surface Water Conservation Program, the Agricultural Management Assistance Program, Forest Land Enhancement Program, and the Klamath Basin Program.
The Administration proposes consolidating all six into one program, under the EQIP umbrella, which can address multiple resource issues. This would include a new Regional Water Enhancement Program. Funding for this newly structured program would be increased by 30 percent or an additional $4.25 billion over ten years.
The Regional Water Enhancement Program would allow producers to use a broad range of conservation tools to address water quantity and/or quality issues on a regional scale. Mandatory funding of $175 million annually would be available to coordinate conservation solutions for working agricultural landscapes, including crop, pasture, grazing and orchard lands.
The Administration proposal supports reauthorizing the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) at its current acreage level. CRP would continue to focus on retiring lands that provide the most significant environmental benefits.
However, priority would be given to the enrollment of whole fields that qualify to produce perennial biomass crops for cellulosic energy production. Continuous CRP enrollment and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program would also continue.
The Conservation Security Program (CSP) would be simplified by creating two tiers of conservation achievement instead of three, by removing base, maintenance, and cost-share payments.
CSP would be enhanced to provide incentives for higher levels of conservation practices. Under the proposal, CSP enrollment would expand from 15.5 million acres to an estimated 96.5 million acres over 10 years.
CSP would also be offered nationwide on an annual basis, instead of in select watersheds.
Funding for the program would increase $500 million over 10 years, which would take the program to $8.5 billion during FY 2008-2017.
The three existing easement programs for working lands — the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, the Healthy Forest Reserve Program, and the Grasslands Reserve Program — would become one new Private Lands Protection Program with a shared goal of protecting farmland and open space. Funding would be increased by $900 million over 10 years.
Conservation compliance provisions would be broadened to discourage the conversion of grassland to crop production. Between 1982-2002 acreage in non-Federal grasslands fell by 24 million acres. A 'Sod Saver' provision would help retain private grass and rangelands by making its conversion to cropland ineligible for farm price and income support.
The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) would be enhanced and expanded. The enrollment cap would expand from 2.3 million acres to 3.5 million acres with an annual goal of enrolling 250,000 acres.
The easement function of the Emergency Watershed Program and the WRP would be combined into one WRP. Mandatory funding of more than $2 billion would be added to the program.
Likewise, the Emergency Watershed Protection Program and the Emergency Conservation Program would become one new Emergency Landscape Restoration Program. This would create a one-stop source for landowners and communities in need of emergency conservation assistance following a catastrophic event.
To encourage participation in conservation programs by beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, the Administration proposes designating 10 percent of conservation financial assistance to these groups. This will enable beginning and socially disadvantaged producers, who typically farm smaller acreages, to more effectively compete for conservation dollars.
Lastly, to spur the development of ecosystem service markets that would establish a value for agriculture and forestry conservation practices, the Administration would invest $50 million. These funds would be used to develop uniform standards for quantifying environmental services, to establish credit registries; and to offer credit audit and certification services.
Ultimately producers could earn credits for conservation efforts, which in turn could be sold to achieve environmental goals such as sequestering carbon, protecting endangered species and other measures that enhance the nation's environment.
The farm bill proposals released Jan. 31 are based on comments and suggestions received from farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders during 52 USDA Farm Bill Forums across the nation and received via mail and the Internet.
These proposals represent the final phase of a nearly two year process. To access the full 183 page document or to access the proposals by title go to www.USDA.gov/farmbill.