Update: House and Senate Farm Bill negotiators announced a deal, leading to the swift passage of the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act by both chambers with record bipartisan support. The bill awaits the President’s signature, possibly as soon as Dec. 20th.
Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s government affairs team conferenced in Washington, D.C. late last night, digging deep into the details of a newly-released, 800-page Farm Bill agreement. Despite budget constraints, major conservation programs translating to on-the-ground wildlife habitat would see improvement pending final passage. In particular, “The Habitat Organization” points to a 27-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – an increase of 3 million acres – an expansion of the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), and long-term funding for wetland/agricultural easements as earnest upland habitat improvements.
The CRP remains the nation’s most vital and comprehensive upland habitat program, and while modest, the increase in program acreage is magnified with additional details of state-specific CRP allocations that would direct more critical grassland acres to core regions of pheasant and quail country. The VPA-HIP – the only federal program helping to expand hunting and fishing opportunities through partnerships with landowners – increased from $40 million to $50 million, which means an opportunity for states to scale up or launch new public access programs.
“American wildlife and landowners need a Farm Bill in place, and we’re on the precipice of that,” said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s vice president of governmental affairs who has worked with legislators on crafting the Farm Bill since 1992. “Although we’re pleased with the Conservation Title, we are concerned that over the last several Farm Bills, conservation funding and acres have either remained flat, or in cases like CRP acres, reduced. This is the first time CRP acres have increased since the 1996 Farm Bill, and part of that is due to the support of our 140,000 members, volunteers, hunters, farmers and landowners making their voices heard in support of a strengthened CRP.”
Here’s what you need to know about conservation provisions in the new Farm Bill language:
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP)
- Acreage cap and funding – Increases CRP acreage from 24 million to 27 million acres by 2023.
- Instructs the Secretary of Agriculture to enroll 30 percent of all acres within continuous CRP (8.6M acres total). This includes targeted programs such as States Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), upland CP33 quail buffers, and other practices that benefit wildlife, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality.
- Directs the Secretary of Agriculture to conduct routinely scheduled signups with targeted state-to-state allocations. This is a critical element for adding new acres into the program annually.
- A new program called CLEAR 30 will provide a pilot program for a 30-year contract option on the most highly sensitive lands such as buffers, wetlands and riparian areas.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
- Reauthorizes funding for VPA-HIP at $50 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.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
- The percentage of EQIP funds that will benefit wildlife has increased from 5 percent to 10 percent, providing an estimated $200 million per year. This specifically has new opportunities for quail and forest habitat.
- The Working Lands for Wildlife Program is expanded and codified in new Farm Bill language to continue work in priority landscapes for multiple species; including quail, sage grouse, lesser prairie chickens, and other wildlife.
Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP)
- Provides a funding boost of $2.25 billion over the life of the Farm Bill. This is an important program for long-term and permanent land protection. The high demand for ACEP dollars to create wetland and agricultural easements has far outpaced current demand.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP)
- Authorizes SHIPP “to assist landowners with conserving and improving soil, water, and wildlife resources” while allowing shorter contracts from 3 to 5 years in the Prairie Pothole Region. The program also increases flexibility for producers to create more early successional grassland habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.
Sodsaver and Conservation Compliance
- Expanded and strengthened to include $1.5 billion over the life of the bill to leverage local, state and other non-federal funding sources in order to create and enhance wildlife habitat on private lands.
- These provisions will continue to protect native habitats that include prairie, wetland and forestlands that balance an ecosystem that consists of conservation, and agricultural production systems.
Since 2008, CRP has been reduced more than 14 million acres across many states that are considered to be historical strongholds for pheasant and quail populations – the effects have been sobering. However, the new Farm Bill legislation does provide optimism for the future including routinely-scheduled general signups with state allocations, more flexible haying and grazing provisions, and a number of technical changes to rental rates, incentive and cost-share payments.
“We’re hopeful these changes will spur additional interest in conservation, leading to higher enrollment levels in priority landscapes benefitting pheasants, quail and other wildlife,” added Nomsen. “Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever look forward to working closely with USDA to implement on-the-ground acres as quickly as possible.”
About Pheasants Forever
Pheasants Forever, including its quail conservation division, Quail Forever, is the nation's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to upland habitat conservation. Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever have more than 149,000 members and 725 local chapters across the United States and Canada. Chapters are empowered to determine how 100 percent of their locally raised conservation funds are spent; the only national conservation organization that operates through this truly grassroots structure. Since creation in 1982, Pheasants Forever has spent $784 million on 530,000 habitat projects benefiting 17 million acres nationwide.