2018 Farm Bill Update: Advances from Senate Ag Committee

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PHEASANTS FOREVER AND QUAIL FOREVER CONTINUES CAPITOL HILL ADVOCACY, HOPEFUL THAT IN CONFERENCE COMMITTEE WITH THE HOUSE, LEGISLATORS CAN MANEUVER AN ADDITIONAL INCREASE FOR THE NATION’S MOST IMPORTANT UPLAND HABITAT PROGRAM.

On Wednesday, June 13th, the 21-member Senate Ag Committee moved ahead with their bipartisan version of the Farm Bill – The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 – with a vote of 20-1. The Senate version’s entire conservation package contains significant funding boosts and support for permanent easement and voluntary access programs, including a modest increase for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), boosting its cap from 24 million acres to 25 million acres. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever continues Capitol Hill advocacy, hopeful that in conference committee with the House, legislators can maneuver an additional increase for the nation’s most important upland habitat program.
 
“Chairman Roberts, Ranking Member Stabenow, and the entire Senate Ag Committee have crafted a bill that sets the stage for a strong final Farm Bill product, one that’s a mechanism of support for rural farming communities and a boon for wildlife habitat,” said Howard Vincent, President and CEO of Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever, “We look forward to staying engaged through the final proceedings of the Farm Bill and remain hopeful for achieving a robust suite of conservation programs to the benefit of soil, water and wildlife.”
 
The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) – the only federal program helping to expand hunting and fishing opportunities through partnerships with landowners – did see a renewed commitment from the Senate. 
 
During the Senate Ag Committee hearing, more than 60 amendments were offered, including funding increases for specific programs. Committee member and Majority Leader McConnell (KY) wants to bring the Farm Bill provisions to the Senate floor before the 4th of July. The Senate and House versions of the Farm Bill do not currently match (for example, the House version calls for a 29 million-acre CRP cap while the Senate version is fixed at 25 million acres), but each contain key conservation provisions. Details in the just-passed version by the Senate Agriculture Committee include:
 

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

Acreage cap and funding – Increases CRP acreage to 25 million acres and provides $11 million for tree thinning incentive payments for quail and other CRP pine stand wildlife.
State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) – Instructs the Secretary of Agriculture to enroll 30 percent of continuous CRP acres in SAFE.
Conservation Reserve Easements – Upon expiration of certain contracts, landowners have the option of enrolling expiring CRP contracts under a “Conservation Reserve Easement.” These acres would not count against the CRP acreage cap, so could provide up to an additional 3 million acres of CRP nationwide.
 

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)

The percentage of EQIP funds that must be used on farming practices benefitting wildlife increased from 5 percent to 10 percent, providing an estimated $650 million with a focus on wildlife, including the Working Lands for Wildlife program.
 

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)

Provides a funding boost ($2 billion over the life of the Farm Bill) for ACEP, an important program for permanent land protection. The high demand for ACEP dollars to create wetland and agricultural easements has far outstripped current budgets. 


Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP)

Reauthorizes funding for VPA-HIP at $40 million over the life of the Farm Bill. This is the most important program of its kind for hunter access nationwide and the only federal program helping to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on private lands.
 

Sodsaver 

Expands protections on native grasslands and provides opportunities for individual states to provide added protections to nation’s remaining native grasslands.
 

Regional Conservation Partnership Program

Provides $200 million per year in mandatory funding to support projects which improve wildlife habitat and water quality on a landscape level – large projects with positive impacts for wildlife.


Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP)

Authorizes SHIPP “to assist landowners with conserving and improving soil, water, and wildlife resources” while allowing shorter contracts from 3-5 years – increased flexibility for producers and wildlife managers will result.

Photo Credit: Mike Poeppe