Hold the Line

Rancher Mike Bay

On June 12, 523 organizations from across the country wrote to the leadership of the U.S. House and Senate to urge that Congress make no more cuts to funding for the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill as the bill moves forward over the next few weeks. (The Farm Bill must be re-authorized every five years and expires this coming fall).

The Nature Conservancy was active in drafting and promoting this letter because the Conservation Title of the Farm Bill has become the most important single piece of conservation legislation in the country. It works by providing funding to farmers, ranchers and forest land owners to restore land not suitable for farming to a more natural condition and to help them to better manage their lands to reduce adverse impacts on water quality, productive soils, and wildlife.

These kinds of partnerships with agricultural landowners have produced positive and tangible results since the first such programs were created in response to the dust bowl of the 1930s. The Farm Bill Conservation Title programs are even more successful today because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is directing more of the funds to address priority areas of critical water resources and fish and wildlife habitat like the Chesapeake Bay and the prairie pothole region of the upper mid-west.

But over the last several years Farm Bill conservation programs have seen damaging cuts in the annual appropriations process. Faced with the need to cut still more to address the growing federal budget deficit, the Senate Agriculture Committee worked hard on a bi-partisan basis to craft a new Conservation Title that should improve program effectiveness while reducing spending by $6 billion over ten years. These additional cuts will still hurt (and we would, of course, rather see the Conservation Title Programs grow) but, as the letter we signed says, “further cuts would jeopardize this country’s entire system of successful agricultural and forestry conservation programs.”

The bi-partisan agreement worked out by the leadership of both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees last fall would mean that overall Farm Bill expenditures would be reduced by $23 billion over the next ten years.  The Senate Bill holds to that agreement, so farm programs will do more than their fair share for deficit reduction. It is time for the budget cutting to stop and for both houses of Congress to get on with passing a Farm Bill. This is entirely possible if the bill can run the gauntlet of amendments that have been proposed on the Senate floor. More amendments will come when the House takes up the bill later this summer. Some of these amendments will improve the bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee, but others are the result of partisan bickering that should not get in the way of passage of this important legislation.

The Conservation Title of the Senate bill is a good example for Congress of what can be done when knowledgeable people from both parties work together with a focus on what’s good for the American people. In this case what’s good is a recognition, as our letter says, “that the health of America’s soil, water, wildlife, and other natural resources is essential to the long term productivity and economic viability of agriculture and forestry and that protecting and managing our natural resources is critical to the future of American communities.”

If we can’t agree on things like this, more than the Farm Bill is in trouble. But I am optimistic that Congress can get this done and in doing so can demonstrate to the organizations (and their millions of members) from across America that signed this week’s Farm Bill letter that we can still find common ground on which to stand to build a healthy long term future for this country.

[Image: Montana ranchers, like Mike Bay, are conserving wildlife habitat with conservation easements. Image Source: Kenton Rowe]

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