Green groups worry Congress will cut land conservation program amid drought

Even as lawmakers fret this summer’s severe drought might cause another Dust Bowl, environmental groups are sounding alarms that Congress is slated to cut a program designed to prevent such a catastrophe from occurring in dry years. 

Both the House and the Senate aim to cut funding for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to take crop land out of production and instead use that acreage to plant trees and grass.

Both the House and Senate versions of the five-year farm bill would cut the CRP funding to limit land taken out of production to 25 million, from its current 32-million acre cap. 

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The program helps lock in soil and the nutrients used to grow crops, thereby preventing the kind of erosion that plagued the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. 

The trees and grass also help absorb carbon dioxide emissions, mitigating global warming.

The Congressional Budget Office says the programs costs $1.9 billion this year, and, if left untouched, would rise to $2.1 billion next year.

Environmentalists say lawmakers are missing the point when they decry the impact of this year’s drought and push for aid for farmers – all while swinging the budget ax over the CRP.

“There’s an unfortunate disconnect between the growing recognition that the severe weather that’s causing the huge drought” and conservation programs, said Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“All the scientists are coming out saying this is climate change today, the impact of climate change is hitting us faster and sooner than people thought,” Matzner told The Hill. “And there’s a disconnect between those two facts, and it’s being brought out in the context of the farm bill with the [CRP].”

Congress is struggling to get a comprehensive five-year farm bill approved. But lawmakers have agreed to slash about $6 billion from conservation programs. 

That broad consensus will likely make it harder for conservationists’ concerns to gain traction on Capitol Hill.

The CRP is slated for the steepest cuts of all conservation programs, in terms of percentage and dollar amount. The House farm bill, however, ratchets the CRP funding down to the 25 million acre cap faster than the Senate.

Environmental groups say Congress’ conservation spending plan is ill advised and contradictory when politicians maintain they want to shield farmers from another Dust Bowl. 

Matzner said there is general dissatisfaction among environmental groups regarding the cuts proposed in the House and the Senate farm bills.

“I think there’s disappointment from various groups with anyone, doesn’t matter what the party is, who would choose to cut these programs,” Matzner said. “It’s indicative of how the politics around these programs can get convoluted.”

The CRP’s roots reach back to the 1930s Dust Bowl, though the program was not formally institutionalized until the 1985 farm bill. But market forces have naturally validated shrinking the program since then.

Though meant to reduce soil erosion, water pollution and wildlife habitat destruction, part of the impetus for the CRP’s Dust Bowl era predecessor was also to boost crop prices by cutting supply. The same was true in 1985, following years of Agriculture Department-led overproduction.

Now, crop prices already are high, pushing farmers to voluntarily remove land from production. 

That has helped lawmakers from both parties find agreement on cutting the program, said David DeGennaro, legislative and policy analyst with the Environmental Working Group.

“That gives them a good reason to go after the program, and in some ways that’s valid,” DeGennaro told The Hill. “But the point of the program is not to ebb and flow with crop prices. It’s meant to be a long term, semi-permanent type of thing.”

DeGennaro said Congress has treated conservation programs “as an ATM.”

DeGennaro pointed to the emergency drought relief bill the House passed earlier this month. It takes $600 million from conservation programs from fiscal 2013 for immediate direct cash payments to farmers, and also to pay down the national deficit. He also said Congress cut mandatory funding levels for conservation programs every year since 2002.

If the conservation cuts make it into a final farm bill, DeGennaro said climate change and drought will have a more significant impact on farmers.

“It’s very short-sighted in terms of climate and drought in particular because we are reducing the programs that help mitigate those things,” he said. “So if we’re serious about trying to address climate change, and we’re serious about trying to put some resiliency back on the landscape, then these conservation programs are critical.”