Conservation groups across the country are praising the conservation provisions in the new Farm Bill agreement House and Senate negotiators reached earlier this week.
In a news release, Pheasants Forever and sister group Quail Forever outlined some of the key conservation components in the Farm Bill, including a 27-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program, an increase of 3 million acres from the 2014 Farm Bill that expired this fall.
In addition, PF and QF officials pointed to an expansion of the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program and long-term funding for wetland and agricultural easements as significant upland habitat improvements.
"American wildlife and landowners need a Farm Bill in place, and we're on the precipice of that," Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever's vice president of governmental affairs who has worked with legislators on crafting the Farm Bill since 1992, said in a statement. "Although we're pleased with the Conservation Title, we are concerned that over the last several Farm Bills, conservation funding and acres have either remained flat, or in cases like CRP acres, reduced. This is the first time CRP acres have increased since the 1996 Farm Bill, and part of that is due to the support of our 140,000 members, volunteers, hunters, farmers and landowners making their voices heard in support of a strengthened CRP."
The legislation now heads to the U.S. House and then, if it passes there, will proceed to the president's desk to be signed into law.
Here's a look at the conservation highlights included in the Farm Bill and their common acronyms as outlined by PF and QF in a Wednesday news release:
Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
Acreage cap and funding: Increases CRP acreage from 24 million acres to 27 million acres by 2023.
Instructs the secretary of agriculture to enroll 30 percent of all acres within continuous CRP (8.6 million acres total). This includes targeted programs such as States Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE), upland CP33 quail buffers, and other practices that benefit wildlife, reduce soil erosion, and improve water quality.
Directs the secretary of agriculture to conduct routinely scheduled General signups with targeted state-to-state allocations. This is a critical element for adding new acres into the program annually.
A new program called CLEAR 30 will provide a pilot program for a 30-year contract option on the most highly sensitive lands such as buffers, wetlands and riparian areas.
Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP)
Reauthorizes funding for VPA-HIP at $50 million over the life of the Farm Bill. This is the most important program of its kind for hunter access nationwide and the only federal program helping to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on private lands.
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
The percentage of EQIP funds that will benefit wildlife has increased from 5 percent to 10 percent, providing an estimated $200 million per year. This specifically has new opportunities for quail and forest habitat.
The Working Lands for Wildlife Program is expanded and codified in new Farm Bill language to continue work in priority landscapes for multiple species; including quail, sage grouse, lesser prairie chickens and other wildlife.
Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)
Provides a funding boost of $2.25 billion over the life of the Farm Bill. This is an important program for long-term and permanent land protection. The high demand for ACEP dollars to create wetland and agricultural easements has far outpaced current demand.
Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP)
Authorizes SHIPP "to assist landowners with conserving and improving soil, water, and wildlife resources" while allowing shorter contracts from three to five years in the Prairie Pothole Region. The program also increases flexibility for producers to create more early successional grassland habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.
Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP)
Expanded and strengthened to include $1.5 billion over the life of the bill to leverage local, state and other non-federal funding sources in order to create and enhance wildlife habitat on private lands.
Sodsaver and Conservation Compliance
These provisions will continue to protect native habitats that include prairie, wetland and forestlands that balance an ecosystem consisting of conservation and agricultural production systems.
Since 2008, CRP has been reduced more than 14 million acres across many states that are considered to be historical strongholds for pheasant and quail populations, and the effects have been sobering. However, the new Farm Bill legislation does provide optimism for the future, including routinely scheduled general signups with state allocations, more flexible haying and grazing provisions and a number of technical changes to rental rates, incentives and cost-share payments.
"We're hopeful these changes will spur additional interest in conservation, leading to higher enrollment levels in priority landscapes benefitting pheasants, quail and other wildlife," Nomsen said. "Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever look forward to working closely with USDA to implement on-the-ground acres as quickly as possible."
Here's what some other conservation groups had to say about the new Farm Bill:
"We're relieved to see a Farm Bill move forward before this Congress concludes, because every day we go without critical programs for habitat and access it creates more uncertainty for rural America. With full funding for conservation and increased funding for states to create new walk-in access for hunting and fishing, this bill is a win all around - for sportsmen and women, landowners, wildlife, water quality, and our economy."
-- Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
"Since the 2014 Farm Bill expired this fall, it has been tough for landowners like me to make definitive decisions about how to put conservation on the ground, despite having the best intentions. For farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the country who are willing to do the right thing, it's a tremendous positive to have a Farm Bill on the horizon, ready to work for our business portfolios, local wildlife, and access to hunting and fishing."
-- Zane Zaubi of Horizon Land Development, who hosts youth and first-time hunters on land he has enrolled in the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive program.
"I thank all members of Congress and everyone within the land conservation community who helped bring the Farm Bill to this point. The legislation helps landowners conserve our lands, our waters and our ways of life. Our shared goal is within reach - and the time to get it done is now."
-- Andrew Bowman, president of the Land Trust Alliance.
"The Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 is a win for the American farmer and the conservation of our country's private lands. The bill's much-needed boosts in funding for priority conservation programs, combined with important forestry provisions, will give farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners the tools to protect and conserve their land and their way of life. Lawmakers should be commended for their work to reach a compromise that will help keep our farms and rural communities productive and sustainable.
"With just days before the 115th Congress adjourns, this is a win lawmakers can quickly deliver for conservation. For the protection of our lands, waters and the benefits their conservation bring to families, communities and our economy, Congress should pass this Farm Bill by year's end."
-- Kameran Onley, director of U.S. Government Relations at The Nature Conservancy.
"This Farm Bill marks a victory for birds and the conservation work of farmers and landowners, and utilizing the RCPP, we can better target conservation efforts to bird species most in need. The final agreement also dropped numerous harmful provisions affecting federal forests, endangered species, and dangerous pesticides that kill millions of birds each year."
-- Steve Holmer, vice president of Policy for the American Bird Conservancy.