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Outdoors / Sports

Farm Bill includes key conservation measures, though cuts are included

Conservation groups are hailing the new federal Farm Bill, passed by the House last week and approved by the Senate on Tuesday and is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama, as a win for wildlife -- and hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Still, some might say it's a bittersweet victory because it comes with $6 billion in cuts to conservation. But the reality is the bill likely is also the best conservation advocates could get, and the cuts could have been much worse, supporters say.

"We are going to be celebrating this bill," said Steve Kline, director of government relations for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "It is the best we can get."

The measure funds the popular Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) -- which has been a boon to wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds such as pheasants and ducks.

Minnesota has about 1.3 million acres enrolled in CRP.

And the bill requires farmers to comply with conservation programs to fully qualify for taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance -- a key provision sought by conservation groups.

It also includes a "sodsaver" provision for Minnesota and five other states that limits subsidies for farming previously unplowed grassland. The goal is to protect the remaining native prairie.

And it includes $40 million a year in grants to states to provide public access to private lands -- money that Minnesota has used to fund its new Walk-In Access program. Last year, about 20,000 private acres were open to public hunting through the program.

Long-term funding for the Walk-In program has been a concern, and the continued flow of federal dollars could keep Minnesota's program viable for at least several more years until a permanent funding source can be found.

But the bill cuts $6 billion from conservation over the next decade, consolidates 23 conservation programs into 13 and lowers the maximum number of acres enrolled in CRP to 24 million, down from 32 million under the last Farm Bill.

That loss of 8 million acres, or 12,500 square miles of grassland, is equal to about 22 percent of the entire state of Iowa. The bottom line: There will be less wildlife habitat nationwide than there was just a few years ago.

And conservation groups had wanted the sodsaver provisions for all states but instead ended up with just six -- Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.

"We're going to gladly accept this six-state sodsaver, but what we hope to do in the coming year is point out that breaking native prairie isn't just a six-state issue," said Dan Wrinn, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited.

Still, given the current politics, conservation groups were mostly singing the bill's praises last week.

"That's a huge victory for conservation," Wrinn said.

Dave Nomsen of Alexandria, Minn., vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever, also is upbeat. "I see the future as bright to put conservation on the landscape," he said.

He's optimistic that CRP will continue to be the backbone of grassland and wetland conservation, despite the coming cutback in acreage. CRP, in which landowners take marginal lands out of production and usually plant them to grass, has been hailed as a windfall for wildlife since it was launched almost 30 years ago.

However, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have lost hundreds of thousands of acres of CRP in recent years as farmers pulled out of the program, plowed up the grass and planted corn and soybeans because of high crop prices. Last fall, CRP acreage fell to about 25.6 million acres.

But corn, once more than $7 a bushel, now fetches just over $4, which means farmers might again find CRP attractive. And, Nomsen said, House-Senate members on the conference committee that hammered out the Farm Bill have urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer more competitive payments, which could encourage more CRP sign-ups.

The 2008 Farm Bill expired 15 months ago, but Congress had been unable to agree on provisions for a new bill. The battle mainly was over the food stamp program, not conservation programs, Nomsen said.

For 10 years, the bill would cost about $956 billion -- 80 percent of that goes to food stamp and nutrition programs. Crop insurance gets about $90 billion, conservation gets $56 billion and commodity programs get $44 billion.

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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