There's good news and bad news for hunters, anglers and other conservationists in the new Farm Bill, which could be approved by Congress soon.
The good news is that farmers and ranchers will have to apply conservation measures in exchange for federal crop insurance on highly erodible land and wetlands.
The linkage of "conservation compliance" to crop insurance was a key provision sought by conservation groups, such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever.
Said Bill Wenzel of the Izaak Walton League: "Ensuring conservation benefits are retained as part of the taxpayer-supported financial safety net for farmers is the League's No. 1 priority.''
The bill also includes a "sodsaver" provision that limits crop insurance subsidies for the first few years in areas where land is newly converted to cropland. That's meant to discourage farmers from tilling native grasslands. The provision is limited to lands in Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.
However, the bill also cuts $6 billion from conservation over the next decade, consolidating 23 conservation programs into 13. It is expected to lower the maximum number of acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to 24 million acres; the maximum was 32 million acres under the last farm bill.
CRP, in which landowners take marginal lands out of production and usually plant them to grass, has been hailed as a windfall for wildlife, especially ground-nesting birds such as pheasants and ducks. Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota have lost hundreds of thousands of acres of CRP in recent years as farmers pulled out of the program, plowed up the grass and planted corn and soybeans.
Last fall, there were about 25.6 million acres in CRP, but 9 million acres are set to expire over the next five years.
Enrollment into the continuous CRP program, which targets the most environmentally sensitive acres, would continue.
A House-Senate conference committee reached an agreement Monday night on provisions of the massive Farm Bill. The House was expected to vote on the bill on Wednesday, and the Senate could take it up soon afterward.
The 2008 Farm Bill expired 15 months ago, but Congress has been unable to agree on provisions for a new bill, until now.