2012 Farm Bill Proposes Changes To Conservation Programs

As the full U.S. Senate begins to review the proposed 2012 Farm Bill, concerns over Federal spending and deficit reduction have rightfully taken a front seat. According to the current estimates, the changes included in the 2012 Farm Bill will create a deficit reduction of approximately $23 billion for the American taxpayers.
Thanks to the leadership of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, many programs of particular interest to Michigan sportsmen and conservationists have been preserved at some level, including those supporting wildlife habitat enhancement and protection, forestry, and public access to private lands. Federal Farm Bill dollars are one of the major sources of funding for habitat enhancement on private lands in Michigan.
How do the changes affect the conservation programs?
Since the Farm Bill is such a complex and sprawling work of legislation – its major components were categorized into separate titles, each dealing with its own sub-category of agricultural issues. For conservationists, the relevant section is Article II – titled “Conservation.” Under the 2008 Farm Bill, Title II accounted for roughly $24 billion in spending over a five year period. Put into perspective, that $24 billion is only about 8% of the total expenditures under the 2008 Farm Bill
When broken down into the separate titles, the current estimates show that the changes proposed under Title II for the 2012 Farm Bill will create a deficit reduction of roughly $6 billion. When first encountered by this $6 billion reduction figure, it seems strikingly large– particularly in light of the total $24 billion allotted to our conservation programs. Luckily, the Senate committee has managed to find ways to save costs without taking the funding exclusively out of the programs.
The majority of the $6 billion in savings is being found through the consolidation and streamlining of the twenty-three current programs into a manageable core group of four programs. This restructuring should cut administrative costs and should additionally serve to simplify the programs for its participants. The explanation of the programs that might be of interest to sportsmen are as follows:
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program:
The purpose of the easement program is to preserve specified portions of land. The current system uses several programs, however the changes found in the 2012 Farm Bill will consolidate all of the programs into one “Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.” The program will contain two sub-programs, both of which focus on long-term land protection:
Agricultural Land Easements: used to protect lands from development and to retain the land use for agricultural purposes; and,
Wetlands Easements: used to restore, protect and enhance wetlands.
In aggregate, the proposed 2012 Farm Bill budget will authorize between $450 million and $525 million per year from 2013-2016 and $250 million in 2017.
Working Lands Programs:
Conservation Innovation Grants (CIGs): CIGs are given out on a competitive basis to encourage the development of new or improved conservation practices on the farm. The program focuses on projects that can both increase productivity and environmental protection. The only major change to the 2012 Farm Bill is the reporting mandate that is put in place to secure increased transparency of the program. This grant program also has no mandatory funding requirement since funding is based on the value of the projects.
Conservation Stewardship Program: The program is set up to encourage the application of conservation technologies to farms, ranches and forests. The most important change in the 2012 Farm Bill is the lifting of the 10% enrollment cap on non-industrial private forestland acreage. Additionally, the 2012 Farm Bill also allows for the enrollment of property that is exiting out of the CRP. The budget for this program is based upon a targeted national average contract price of $18/acre – the total being subject to the cumulative amount of enrolled acreage.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): This program was created to provide cost-sharing options to farmers who wish to partake in applicable wildlife habitat projects on their property. Under the 2012 Farm Bill, many portions of the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) will be consolidated into EQIP. In so doing, the bill has been amended to add “develop and improve wildlife habitat” to the “purposes” section of EQIP. Furthermore, the bill mandates that at least 5% of the funds be targeted to practices benefiting wildlife habitat. The funding for this program begins at $1.5 billion in 2013 and increases to $1.65 billion through 2015-2017, which is down from the 2012 budget of $1.75 billion.
Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program: The program provides grants for states and tribal governments to use for incentivizing private landowners to voluntarily open their lands to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation – including hunting and fishing. There are no major changes to this program in the 2012 Farm Bill, which has been allotted $15 million per year through 2017.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program: Currently there are four separate programs that support different projects in specific areas or regions. The four different programs, including the Great Lakes Basin Program, will be consolidated into one program that will continue to support projects that improve soil quality, water quality, or wildlife habitat in those regions. Additionally, the 2012 changes authorize the Secretary of Agriculture to designate “Critical Conservation Areas” which will be given priority in funding decisions. This program also lacks a mandatory budget requirement, and funding will be based on the individual projects and the cost-sharing determined by the Secretary.
Conservation Reserve Program: The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) removes highly erodible land from production to benefit soil and water quality as well as wildlife habitats. The program currently has an acreage cap of 32 million acres. Over the next two years, the contracts on over 10 million acres will expire. The bill lowers the acreage cap through a multi-year step-down to 25 million acres, allowing for the re-enrollment and prioritization of the most highly erodible, sensitive acres. There is an added focus on grassland conservation, which is a benefit to the Michigan Pheasant Restoration Initiative.
Based upon the proposed 2012 Farm Bill, conservation programs should expect to see some level of decreased funding . In light of the current Federal budget, however, conservationists should view this proposal as a “win.” The truth of the matter is that the proposed 2012 Farm Bill has made massive changes to trim government spending - and when compared to the other Titles, conservation programs saw relatively mild reductions. Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the proposed 2012 Farm Bill is still in the Senate and is subject to change before it becomes law.
For more information regarding the proposed U.S. Agricultural Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, please visit the Senate Committee’s website.

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