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House Slashes Farm Bill's Environmental Programs

Farm bill conservation funding slashed in House Babe Winkleman
The Pilot-Independent Wednesday, July 13th, 2005 08:56:15 AM

In a perfect world, politicians wouldn't be allowed to get their dirty little hands on natural-resources funding. In a perfect world, politicians wouldn't be allowed to deal with natural-resource issues, period.

Here's why:

In yet another episode of Congressional Shenanigans, federal lawmakers, with budget axes in tow, have set their collective sights on cutting important farm bill conservation programs for fiscal year 2006 < programs that were approved for guaranteed funding increases in the 2002 Federal Farm Bill.

In fact, the House of Representatives has done just that. The House Appropriations Committee recently voted to slash farm bill conservation initiatives to the tune of roughly $468 million for a laundry list of programs important to cash-poor farmers and ranchers across the nation. The most-notable programs on the chopping block include: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), the Conservation Security Program (CSP), and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), among several others.

Since the 2002 farm bill was passed into law, actions by the federal lawmakers and the Bush administration have reduced promised conservation title funding by roughly $3.8 billion. That's no small chunk of change being stolen from conservation programs.

Keep in mind, the vast majority of our nation's agricultural producers support farm bill conservation programs as a way to diversify their annual revenue streams and improve the environment for fish and wildlife. With grain prices chronically depressed, more and more farmers and ranchers are tailoring their operations around the promise of guaranteed payments from farm bill conservation programs. The recent cuts by the House Appropriations Committee are a betrayal of that promise.

"With three of every four farmers wanting to participate in USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) conservation programs being turned away due to insufficient funds, it makes no sense for congressional appropriators to be reducing the funding made available for conservation incentives by the 2002 Farm Bill," said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a farm conservation organization based in Washington, D.C. "The drastic cuts included in the agricultural funding bill passed by the House of Representatives will harm farm income while depriving the public of important environmental services that result from conservation and habitat improvement. We urge the Senate to undo the damage by returning to the conservation deal it struck in the 2002 Farm Bill."

The Coalition and 24 other conservation-minded groups < including such mainstream organizations as Trout Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League of America, the National Wildlife Federation, and others < have drafted a letter urging Senate Appropriation Committee members to maintain conservation spending levels as written in the 2002 farm bill.

The reality is that the Senate will draft a bill that cuts some farm bill conservation programs. Still, the esteemed body must exercise better judgment than the House and not cut conservation programs as drastically. Hoefner and other conservation officials point out that farm bill spending also includes appropriations for commodity titles. If conservation programs are going to be cut, they say, why not commodity subsidies as well?

"There needs to be some fairness in the appropriations process," said Hoefner. "That's all we're asking for. The federal farm bill is a big-ticket item, and we're saying if it is going to be re-opened, then there needs to be cuts to commodity titles, too. It has to be more equitable."

In their letter, the groups also urge the Senate to improve Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) funding to at least the 200,000-acre level proposed by the Bush administration as part of its Wetlands Initiative. Interestingly, the Republican-lead House, which is usually in lock-step with the administration, cut $73 million out of WRP, the largest federal program to restore wetlands and one that President Bush fully supports, conservation officials say.

To date, scores of farmers and ranchers are enrolled in WRP. In fact, the backlog is said to be more than 500,000 acres. One problem: there's no funding for the program, and the additional cuts passed by the House will only increase the backlog.

Here's the bottom line: Ensuring adequate funding for USDA's conservation programs is vitally important to solving many of our nation's environmental woes. Half the land in the lower 48 states is cropland, rangeland or pastureland, and how this land is managed in the future will foreshadow the health of our environment. I encourage all hunters, anglers and conservationists to contact their federal lawmakers and urge them to keep their hands off the dollars dedicated to conservation programs in the 2002 farm bill. It's time to stop the Congressional shenanigans. Babe Winkelman is a nationally known outdoorsman who has been teaching people to fish and hunt for 25 years. Watch his award-winning "Good Fishing" television show on WGN-TV, Fox Sports Net, The Men's Channel, Great American Country Network and The Sportsman's Channel. Visit for air times.