As Congress writes a new Farm Bill, lawmakers are working across the aisle to forge solutions that simultaneously help feed America and address our growing conservation challenges.

An indispensable building block of the next Farm Bill is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) – a program helping farmers and ranchers reduce erosion, protect clean water, provide abundant habitat for wildlife, build soil health, and store carbon in the soil. The program has been a resounding success for nearly four decades.

Since Congress created the CRP with bipartisan support in 1985, it has reduced soil erosion by more than 9 billion tons. It has eliminated 100 million tons of phosphorus pollution, 200 million tons of sediment, and over 500 million tons of nitrogen from going into streams, lakes, and estuaries, curbing water pollution that harms fish, wildlife, and people.

To the delight of hunters, anglers and birdwatchers, the program has been a huge success for the innumerable fish and wildlife species that migrate through or reside on farm and ranch lands. CRP fields are the backbone of many state walk-in access programs that bring hunters and anglers to rural communities.

In the northern plains, known as “America’s duck factory,” CRP lands are producing millions of ducks every year. In at least 35 states, the program provides important habitat for the northern bobwhite quail, an iconic species that has seen an 85 percent decline in population across its range due to loss and degradation of its habitat.

As America’s grasslands have disappeared, grassland bird numbers plummeted. CRP acres have been critical in boosting pheasant numbers and stemming the decline of sage grouse, lesser prairie chicken, monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Many birds require large blocks of grassland to nest and prosper. The program has delivered those, helping turn marginal and hard-to-farm cropland into high-quality wildlife habitat.

The program also provides essential climate benefits, giving farmers and ranchers tools for reducing greenhouse gas pollution and storing carbon in the soil by spurring the conversion of the most marginal and environmentally sensitive croplands back into grasslands and native landscapes. Historically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has shown an acre of CRP to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by a ton or more of carbon dioxide every year, and USDA estimates the program has reduced CO2 by some 44 million metric tons per year.

This year, USDA enrolled nearly 2.7 million acres in Grassland CRP contracts and more than 1 million acres in General CRP contracts. It could also enroll another million acres in Continuous CRP contracts, including buffer strips along streams, windbreaks, restored wetlands and habitat for rare wildlife. The new contracts would bring the program closer to the 27 million acres cap authorized by Congress in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill.

The CRP’s flexible structure helps it meet national climate change and soil erosion needs. It helps solve regional challenges like water shortage in the West, water pollution in the East and Midwest, and the loss of longleaf pine forest in the southeast.  From cold-water trout streams and grassland birds to migrating waterfowl, mule deer and even horned lizards, a myriad of fish and wildlife needs are being met on CRP acres. States can utilize CRP to tackle their soil, water and wildlife challenges because the program is designed to use practices that address all three together.

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And CRP is no longer the “land retirement” or “set aside” program it once was – it’s a working lands program. In a drought, producers depend on emergency haying and grazing on CRP land for critically important forage. With the growth of the Grassland CRP and increased flexibility for haying and grazing, CRP lands are working – for producers, livestock, wildlife, and rural communities.

With a long track record of success, the Conservation Reserve Program shouldn’t be retooled in ways that would abandon its many wildlife and other program benefits.

What Congress can and should do is make important improvements to the program that would ensure the CRP delivers even more benefits for our soil, water, wildlife and climate, such as:

  1. Restore CRP payment rates and incentives and increase annual payment limits to ensure landowners are fairly compensated and will continue to enroll land in the program.
  2. Ensure CRP wildlife benefits are maintained by restoring the reasonable limits on haying and grazing that were unintentionally stricken in 2018.
  3. Build on the program’s many benefits by retaining and strengthening the different tools in the CRP toolbox, allowing the program to help meet our climate goals while delivering habitat for wildlife, cleaner water for fish and community water systems, and healthier soil for farmers.

With those modest recommendations, the Conservation Reserve Program can continue to grow its impressive record of success well into the future.

Collin O’Mara, President and CEO, National Wildlife Federation

Whit Fosburgh, President and CEO, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Marilyn Vetter, President and CEO, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever

Adam Putnam, CEO, Ducks Unlimited

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