Hunting and angling groups enter the farm bill debate looking to protect funding for conservation programs and ensure that fish and wildlife habitat is given the same stature as protection of soil and water quality within Agriculture Department programs.

The farm bill's conservation title authorizes the Conservation Reserve Program, the nation’s largest land retirement program, along with several working lands programs such as the heavily oversubscribed Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and others.

The farm bill priorities set by a coalition of 27 hunting and fishing groups known as the Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group includes maintaining baseline funding for the conservation title and making sure that additional funding provided by Congress last year through the Inflation Reduction Act stays within those programs.

The coalition also is calling for Congress to provide more incentives to increase CRP enrollment, create a Forest Conservation Easement program to protect working forests, streamline the Regional Conservation Partnerships Program, and expand the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. 

“Basically, we want to find ways to make those conservation programs as valuable as possible to fish and wildlife while supporting ag production at the same time,” Aaron Field, the director of private lands conservation for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, told Agri-Pulse.

In addition to the TRCP, the coalition includes the American Fisheries Society, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Delta Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League of America, the National Alliance of Forest Owners, the National Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, and Trout Unlimited.

Conservation funding is projected to account for about 4% of total farm bill spending over the next 10 years, according to an analysis by the American Farm Bureau Federation of Congressional Budget Office estimates. Commodity programs are expected to account for about the same share. 

Kurt Theide, the government affairs director for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, said his group is focused on trying to maintain 2018 conservation title baseline funding in the 2023 farm bill. 

A bigger question, though, is what will happen to the approximately $19.5 billion in additional funding provided to USDA for conservation programs and related initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Thiede said House Ag Committee leaders have indicated in conversations that they are supportive of maintaining the IRA funding at current levels.

“Given the dynamics in the House, I think the interest is in a more flat-line budget,” Theide told Agri-Pulse. “I’m not concerned about dips. What I’m focused on right now is just keeping the status quo, at a minimum, for 2023.”

However, groups that are members of the Agriculture and Wildlife Working group are interested in seeing funding increases for specific programs,

Delta Waterfowl, for instance, would like to see an increase for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which provides funding for state and tribal governments to encourage landowners to allow public access to their land for hunting and fishing. Legislators authorized $50 million for the program in the last farm bill, and Delta would like to see that increased to $150 million in 2023. 

John Devney.webpJohn Devney, Delta Waterfowl

“It’s been very well executed with a number of states across the country and we want to make sure that program is sound and well-funded in the 2023 bill as well,” John Devney, Delta Waterfowl’s vice president of U.S. policy, said of the program.

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Field of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said he’d like to see CRP rental payment limits increased to at least $125,000 from the current $50,000. He said the payment limitations have not kept up with inflation. 

Working group members would also like to see CRP rental rate caps removed,

Thiede wants the USDA to provide a CRP cost-share to help with mid-contract management, which are the land maintenance and upkeep requirements producers enrolled in the program need to follow.

“CRP is a great program,” Thiede said. “But depending on the part of the country that you’re in, it requires upkeep, and right now that’s falling upon landowners.”

The groups are also calling for the establishment of a Forest Conservation Easement Program to prevent conversion of forests to non-forest uses, and the organizations say farm bill easement programs should be exempted from means testing. 

The groups say USDA should have authority to hold easements in states where eligible entities “lack the ability or capacity” to keep them on grasslands of special significance.

Some Republicans from the prairie pothole region, including Sens. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., have previously introduced marker bills suggesting that permanent federal easements should be eliminated, and it’s possible that these bills could make their way into farm bill discussions.

Hunting and fishing groups like Ducks Unlimited, however, oppose the idea of ending permanent easements, since they provide long-term protection of waterfowl-supporting wetlands and other ecosystems important to species.

 Julia Peebles, the agriculture and sustainability manager for Ducks Unlimited, said groups like hers will need to “really defend the permanency of easements” if these bills were to enter the farm bill debate.

“You’re always going to have those opponents that disagree with permanent easements. We completely oppose that,” Peebles told Agri-Pulse. “It’s really a landowner's choice to do what they want with their land and if they want that permanent easement, that’s their choice.”

The members of the working group also want updates to the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which provides grants to local and state governments, non-profits and private sector actors to help with on-farm conservation efforts and technical assistance. 

The statutory prohibition on partners recovering indirect and administrative costs should be removed, and RCPP projects should be allowed to use modified conservation practice standards, if found to be “ecologically appropriate," the groups say. 

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Correction: A previous version of this article attributed quotes that came from from Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Government Affairs Director Kurt Thiede to the organization's president, Curt Melcher. We regret the error.