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A 5-Year Farm Bill Should Strengthen Conservation | Commentary

As the Agriculture committees in the House and Senate turn their attention to considering and reporting out a five-year farm bill this month, it’s important to consider how many Americans have felt the negative effects of not having a comprehensive bill.

Every U.S. citizen is affected by the farm bill. That includes farmers and ranchers, of course, but also the majority of Americans who enjoy clean water, affordable food and the great outdoors.

In the midst of an extreme drought hitting the United States, the House of Representatives allowed the farm bill, which ensured drought funding, to expire during the last session of Congress. Farmers and ranchers can’t make long-term plans for their crops or lands without knowing which programs will be funded or eliminated. Outdoor enthusiasts are losing recreation opportunities because of lost or degraded wildlife habitats. The wetlands and grasslands that conserve soil and keep our rivers and lakes clean are being converted to marginally productive agriculture land.

Habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife is being lost at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl. A South Dakota State University study found that more than 1.3 million acres of grasslands has been converted to crop agriculture since 2006. That’s an area nearly the size of the state of Delaware. The study also concluded that crop insurance policies in the current farm bill could encourage farmers to take greater risks in where to plant crops, putting in jeopardy native prairies and wetlands that provide habitat and also many societal benefits, including clean water.

Ducks Unlimited joins the many conservation, commodity, agriculture and forestry groups asking both houses of Congress to pass a five-year farm bill before the extension expires in September. However, we are also asking for the farm bill to maintain and, in some cases, strengthen conservation programs:

Re-couple conservation compliance to crop insurance. Farmers need a safety net against catastrophic weather events and volatile markets, but taxpayer resources should not be used to incentivize wetland drainage and habitat destruction. Re-coupling conservation compliance with crop insurance will conserve wetlands and highly erodible soils, while fulfilling the contract between the public and the farmer and rancher.

Protect native prairie with a national Sodsaver program. More than 70 percent of the nation’s original grasslands have already been lost. Loss of native prairie reduces available grazing lands, increases soil erosion and destroys critical habitat for waterfowl, pheasants and many other wildlife. Farmers can still plow up native prairie, but a Sodsaver program would reduce the amount taxpayers subsidize crop insurance coverage on ground that has never been farmed.

Preserve conservation programs. A five-year bill is necessary to provide for the continuation of vital conservation programs. Once conservation programs are eliminated, it is much more difficult to renew funding for them.

Ducks Unlimited encourages members of Congress to make conservation programs an integral part of this year’s five-year farm bill for the benefit of wildlife, farmers, ranchers and all Americans.

Dale Hall was the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is currently CEO of Ducks Unlimited, the world’s leader in wetlands conservation.

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