Budget has good news but Farm Bill still needs focus
By Jim Inglis
Just in time for spring, Congress passed and the President signed the Omnibus Spending Bill. In it, there were some very positive outcomes from a wildlife and conservation perspective – mainly in that United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation funding was not cut, as has been the case the last several years.
In fact, Conservation Technical Assistance in USDA’s budget – which is used to implement conservation programs such as CRP – received a slight increase along with overall conservation operations. This is good news for the folks at your local USDA service center.
Fire Funding Fix
Another notable section of language for USDA was the “Fire Funding Fix” that will allocate more funding to the Forest Service for wildfires. As you have probably heard, there have been very severe wildfires across the country the last few years. The expenses to fight those fires comes off the top of the Forest Service budget, which means that there are few or almost no funds left to do habitat projects in bad wildfire years.
Now, with the new fire langue and a dedicated funding source for fighting wildfires, other conservation priorities will have a more stable plan … such as planned fires for quail habitat or pollinaor programs that also benefit wild pheasants and quail.
In addition, conservation funding increases were seen within the Department of the Interior, which includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management. These organizations are important Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever partners in implementing conservation programs like NAWCA (North American Wetlands Conservation Act) and LWCF (Land and Water Conservation Fund), which received a $25 million increase for FY18. Overall this means more opportunity to match local PF/QF chapter funds to additional federal funding sources.
A Start: House Ag Committee Passes Farm Bill with CRP at 29 Million Acres
Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever attended The House Agriculture Committee hearing for the 2018 Farm Bill (HR 2), which passed out of committee along a party line vote 26-20. This mark-up experienced an unusually partisan and heated debate among members on both sides of the aisle over disagreement on the nutrition title. Historically in past Farm Bills, the agriculture committee has been very bipartisan and generally worked well together to get a bill moved forward.
While the conservation title was not discussed in much depth during the hearing, the bill includes several of PF/QF’s top initiatives. These include an acreage increase for CRP up to 29 million acres, and $50 million in funding for the Voluntary Public Access Program that states use to open up private lands for public hunting. However, we do have concerns about long-term funding scenarios where it appears funding would be cut over a 10-year time period.
In summary, the bill also increases the Environmental Quality Incentives program (EQIP) funding to $3 billion, phases out the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), funds the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) at $500 million (there is a new provision that now makes forest land eligible for easements), and adds $250 million of baseline funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (TX) will now move the bill for a full floor vote that is anticipated for May. It is unclear at this point if there enough support and votes to pass the House. In addition, the Senate is expected to release their version of the Farm Bill in May.
As always, your calls into members of congress are critical to getting a Farm Bill with a strong conservation title.
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