Many Americans may not think of farming as having a significant impact on our daily lives. However, legislation related to farming, commodities, food production and trade in the U.S. plays a critical role in aspects that affect every American: clean air, soil and water; fish and wildlife conservation; accessible, healthy food sources; and the list goes on.
The 2018 farm bill, set to replace the 2014 farm bill expiring this fall, will impact all of us. It’s the primary federal funding source for private land conservation, including conservation easements, forest and grassland restoration and management, wetland protections, soil conservation and improved water quality programs. Congress should, within the limited budgets, maximize the opportunity that landowners have to participate in quality conservation programs.
Conserving and protecting America’s natural land cannot work without participation from private landowners. To help these farmers and landowners, Congress added the first conservation title to the Farm Bill in 1985, providing assistance to farmers and ranchers for education, training and financial support for conservation efforts.
Conservation programs in the Farm Bill assist private landowners to implement conservation efforts on their lands not being using for farming. Why does this matter? Because private lands comprise more than 60 percent of rural lands in the United States. And when you look at just the eastern half of the country, private lands account for even more. Thus, most of our country’s land and wildlife habitat is cared for and managed by private landowners — some who may not have the knowledge, time or financial ability to implement essential conservation efforts.
Since its inception, the farm bill has been critical in establishing consistent conservation practices on our lands, which protect fish and wildlife habitats, improve air and water quality, and protect natural resources for the future. Four years ago, policymakers consolidated some conservation programs and created new programs in the farm bill to streamline efforts and try new methods of working with farmers and conservation organizations that help implement the programs.
When commodity prices are low, like they are now, landowners have a greater interest in leaving less productive farmland idle and participating in conservation programs. The landowners benefit from reduced operating costs. The American public benefits from the conservation measures that are put in place. Farm bill conservation programs have worked well, so well that demand to participate in the programs is now exceeding supply.
There’s been a strong demand among the agricultural community for these efforts, such as the Conservation Reserve Program. Through the program, farmers agree to remove “environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality,” in exchange for rental payment, according to the USDA. In the past few years, demand for the program has exceeded enrollment, which peaked in 2007 at 36 million acres before being scaled back.
Another popular voluntary conservation program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, has also not been able to meet demand of farmers seeking to participate due to lack of funding. This program allows a landowner to implement quality conservation projects and best practices into their working farms. The end result is quality wildlife habitat and better protection of our natural resources, while helping the landowner run their operation more cost effectively.
The farm bill’s conservation programs help to do work across the country on a scale large enough to be meaningful. Through these efforts, private landowners have a positive impact on a variety of important wildlife species and habitats. Sage grouse, cerulean warblers, gopher tortoises, red-cockaded woodpeckers, longleaf pine, and native grasslands, along with the hundreds of other associated species, have shown a positive response from the proactive conservation measures made possible by the farm bill programs.
Additionally, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides funding to landowners to improve their habitat and open it for public recreational access, has proved very popular with sportsmen but currently only meets one-third of demand for participation. Since its beginning in 2014, the USDA estimates the program has opened around 2 million acres for sportsmen access. According to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, programs like this have not only increased opportunities for Americans to enjoy outdoor recreation, but also have created a nearly 100 percent economic return-on-investment to these rural communities.
Improved conservation programs in the farm bill will also help prevent a litany of other issues impacting Americans. According to the American Forest Foundation, wildfires have increased by 160 percent from 1985 to 2015, burning about 7 million acres each year. Yet, in the West, more than one-third of the high-risk acres are on family-owned lands, largely because these private landowners lack the resources necessary to combat wildfire susceptibility. The farm bill can help fund technical assistance to landowners to help manage their forests to mitigate wildfires and keep the land healthy. About 17.6 million American forest landowners have never had assistance with forest management — a reality Congress can change.
As a biologist and CEO of a conservation-focused non-profit, it’s clear to me that empowering private landowners to implement voluntary, proactive conservation practices has positive benefits for America’s wildlife, natural lands, air and water quality, landowners and local economies. Farm bill programs offer opportunities for farmers and ranchers to increase stewardship to their lands without impacting bottom lines. We need to ensure these programs are set up as efficiently and streamlined as possible to maximize the available funding in order to make a true difference on the ground.
I hope Congress keeps this in mind as they finalize this year’s farm bill. Conservation programs in the bill protect our American way of life, so we must protect them.
Rebecca Humphries is CEO of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and preservation of America’s hunting heritage.