The House Agriculture Committee wrapped up its version of a new federal Farm Bill late last week. But whether the measure will be heard on the House floor before Congress' August break is unclear. For soil, water and wildlife conservation in Minnesota and elsewhere, a lot hangs in the balance.
This is particularly true because the recently approved federal Transportation Bill went to President Obama's desk virtually devoid of appropriations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which Congress first approved in the 1960s to pay for recreation and conservation projects nationwide.
The fund is bankrolled by a percentage of fees the government charges for offshore oil and gas leases. But in recent years -- including in the recently passed Transportation Bill -- lawmakers diverted the funds elsewhere.
Conservationists had hoped to use some of the LWCF money to pay for millions of dollars of perpetual conservation easements primarily in the Dakotas. The intent was to conserve some of the fragile grasslands that are being plowed up, or might be, as a result of high corn and other crop prices.
The easements would come from willing landowners, of whom there are hundreds, who have told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they would like to participate.
The Senate already has passed a Farm Bill that includes key provisions conservationists like. One is sodsaver, which provides farmers and ranchers incentives not to break up previously unplowed grasslands. The other is a compliance provision that links participation in USDA commodity programs, including crop insurance, with adherence to federal swampbuster and sodbuster programs.
The aim of both is to conserve lands a wide variety of game and nongame birds and other animals depend on, while also protecting fragile soils and discouraging farmland runoff.
Differences between the conservation titles of the Senate and House bills can be resolved in a conference committee, observers believe. The House, for instance, limits its sodsaver provision to the Prairie Pothole Region, while the Senate's would apply nationwide. Also, there is no conservation compliance provision in the House bill, though a floor amendment calling for one is expected.
For its part, the House went much deeper in cuts to the food stamp program, trimming it by $16 billion -- a big chunk of the $35 billion in cuts the chamber proposes over 10 years ($6.1 billion from conservation programs).
Minnesota Democrats Rep. Collin Peterson and Rep. Tim Walz have played key roles in shaping the conservation parts of the House Farm Bill. Peterson, the ranking minority committee member and former chairman, told Environment and Energy Daily reporter Amanda Peterka on Friday the bill will reach the House floor soon.
"It's important it does,'' said Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever vice president of government affairs. "If it doesn't, I think the cuts could get a lot worse.''
Dennis Anderson • firstname.lastname@example.org