Fifty percent of the United States, or 1.3 billion acres, is cropland, pastureland, and rangeland owned and managed by about 5 million individuals. These are the same farmers and ranchers who we rely on to feed our families and create healthy habitat for wildlife.
Many of these individuals take advantage of farm bill conservation programs benefitting soil health, water quality, and landowners’ bottom lines.
For America’s sportsmen and women, these programs represent $6 billion invested annually to improve fish and wildlife habitat that undergirds our hunting and fishing opportunities. The enhanced health of these private lands through farm bill programs also makes them function more effectively as carbon sinks to combat climate change, another investment in the future of our fish and wildlife populations.
The farm bill’s potential to restore wetlands, native grasslands, sagebrush, and waterways vulnerable to farm runoff makes this law not only the largest pot of federal conservation funding available today, but also one of the most impactful for those of us who enjoy the outdoors.
Unfortunately, that $6-billion annual investment is far from adequate given the economic realities we now face.
Conservation Cuts and Wasted Potential
Generally speaking, farm bill conservation funding increased annually from 1985, when the conservation title was created, until 2014. In that bill, amid government-wide budget sequestration, the conservation title was cut by $208 million over 5 years and $5.2 billion over 10 years. Accounting for an average of 1.5 percent inflation annually since 2013, these cuts have been compounded by roughly 12 percent.
To hone in on one example, the 2014 farm bill merged the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), our nation’s largest working lands program, with the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program and cut funding by $400 million. Then, in 2018, overall funding was essentially kept flat, with increases to some programs coming at the expense of others. The bill expanded eligibility for EQIP to address water scarcity in the West and restored funding to pre-2014 levels, but only by making cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program. In fiscal year 2021, the $1.8 billion available under EQIP is still only $50 million more than in 2013.
At the same time, USDA data between 2012 and 2018 show that roughly 54,000 of EQIP applications—or 53 percent—go unfunded each year, leaving voluntary conservation on more than 8 million acres of lands on the table.
Beyond stagnant funding levels, other cost-cutting factors have also diminished the purchasing power of farm bill conservation programs. Changes to rental rate calculations and the elimination of valuable cost shares under the Trump Administration have allowed Conservation Reserve Program enrollment to drop to a three-decade low. Though the Biden Administration is now taking the time to explore solutions, decisive action will be needed to meet rampant interest in providing CRP benefits to fish and wildlife.
Doubling Conservation Investments
Congress cannot craft yet another farm bill under the same fiscal constraints as the previous two bills, facing the likelihood of a one-two punch of funding cuts and inflation that hobble conservation efforts everywhere. That’s why many in the hunting and fishing nonprofit space are aligned and working together to push for double the investment in conservation programs in the 2023 farm bill.
The timing is good: The Biden Administration’s interest in conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030—a laudable goal—will be difficult to achieve without voluntary conservation of private land. Farm bill conservation programs will also be key in achieving the Biden Administration’s ambitious climate goals.
Decision-makers who have found common ground on conservation issues—enough to pass the recent Great American Outdoors Act, America’s Conservation Enhancement Act, and more—should acknowledge that private lands and the outdoor recreation economy are inextricably linked in our country. And those who care about wildlife must advocate for making conservation a good business decision for private landowners.
America’s hunters and anglers are activated, informed on farm bill conservation policy, and ready to push lawmakers to double down on conservation incentives—for the good of our fish and wildlife, outdoor traditions, economy, and farming neighbors.
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Whit Fosburgh is the president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, whose mission is to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.