Paul Austin

Paul Austin is the director of Conservation Minnesota, a statewide non-profit. In that role, he gets to hear and share Minnesotan’s stories about our lakes, lands and way of life. Paul’s past lives include election as a small town mayor, serving at the US Agency for International Development, and managing a small marketing firm. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, two small children and one very large dog.

Conservation and the New Farm Bill

Posted by: Paul Austin Updated: February 24, 2014 - 1:43 PM

When he signed the Farm Bill earlier this month, President Obama described it as being so much more than a bill about agriculture. 

"Despite its name, the farm bill is not just about helping farmers,” Obama said. “Secretary Vilsack calls it a jobs bill, an innovation bill, an infrastructure bill, a research bill, a conservation bill. It’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

This bill is far from perfect.  But thankfully some of the compromises needed to pass the bill help address concerns in the conservation community. 

The bill contains an agreement between conservation and agricultural organizations that will see conservation compliance efforts incorporated into the federal crop insurance program. The goal of this was to protect millions of acres of vulnerable land.  Along similar lines, the bill also strengthens the Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help support wildlife habitat. 

Another project that will have a direct impact on Minnesotans is the Sodsaver provision which is intended to encourage the protection of critical grassland and prairie habitats by reducing available federal subsidies when such lands are converted into cropland.  While the current version of the bill only has this apply to Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, there is hope that Congress will recognize the value and expand the program in future farm bills.  

Public access to private lands for hunting, fishing, hiking and bird watching also was encouraged under the new bill, with a source of funding set aside to encourage land owners to open their property for such uses. 

While some strides were made, there were also some negatives to come as a part of the legislation. The bill cuts $6 billion from conservation over the coming decade, and it will roll back the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program from 32 million to 24 million. 

As the dust settles on this massive piece of legislation, one thing is clear.  Given the debate we have been watching for months, it could have been a lot worse.  While some very important strides were made, there is still plenty of work that can, and needs to be, done before taking up the next farm bill.

 

 

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