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2013 Farm Bill needed to reduce barriers

Posted by Renee Magyar on August 29, 2013

We're hoping Congress will deliver a 2013 Farm Bill, for technical assistance and greater flexibility on conservation programs.

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When Congress returns from recess on September 9th, the attention of landowners across the country will be turned to D.C., where the House of Representatives will work on the yet to be finalized nutrition component of the 2013 Farm Bill. Leadership in both houses are calling for a joint conference committee, with or without the nutrition-only bill. If the Farm Bill goes to conference, many watching will be closely tuned into crop insurance and commodity subsidy reforms. A lesser cohort of forest and rangeland owners, non-profits, and agencies will be tracking changes to a small but influential suite of programs housed in the Conservation Title of the bill. These programs help landowners conserve critical ecosystem services - including water filtration and carbon sequestration - while improving the long-term economic prosperity of working lands, and have all but shaped forest and rangeland conservation planning across the western United States.

In a research project on payments for ecosystem services, conducted by Sustainable Northwest with our OSU and UO partners, approximately one-third of landowners surveyed in OR, WA, ID, and MT reported that they had participated in a public conservation program and were very likely to participate in the future. Among the most commonly utilized resources were cost share provisions like those in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which provides financial and technical support to landowners who temporarily retire their lands for conservation purposes. 

Public programs can heavily influence conservation planning on working lands but only a minority of forest and rangeland owners actively participates in them. The authors of the study cited limited time and resources, concerns over legal and regulatory implications, and a lack of program flexibility to fit individual needs as barriers to participation. Landowners also reported wanting shorter contracts, more diverse payment options and greater involvement from local partners. Increasing partner involvement and resources to improve outreach and effectively deliver and monitor programs has been a priority for SNW and participants in the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition. 

So how does the 2013 Farm Bill currently score on these issues? Sequestration cuts in the Senate could shrink the Conservation Title by roughly $6 billion over the next decade, with a significant proportion of cuts coming from the CRP. In the House, greater across-the-board cuts may land disproportionately hard on the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) - arguably the most comprehensive and flexible working lands conservation program to date. CSP encourages continual improvement through rewards for managing existing and new conservation efforts while providing innovative tools to manage and compensate for environmental benefits and ecosystem services.

Some positive changes may accompany these cuts to Conservation Title programs. House-proposed consolidations could equip some programs with more flexible rules for local partnerships. Meanwhile, Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-SD) and John Thune (R-SD) have included an amendment that authorizes USDA to determine the amount of funding allocated to outreach and on-the-ground technical assistance. These changes, along with a number of others, may help in reducing the barriers to participation for landowners.

While no exact date has been set for conference, the Senate has already named members to the committee. No matter what political twists and turns lay in the path of this Farm Bill, changes to the Conservation Title from both houses will need to be reconciled. Hanging in the balance will be the future advancement of agricultural conservation programs built on public payments for ecosystem services.