By JIM MATTHEWS
When the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act (called simply the Farm Bill by most) passed through both chambers of Congress recently, sportsmen across the country sighed in relief because the legislation included approximately $5 billion in funding for critical conservation programs on private lands that protect soil health, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat on this property.
This bill is a renewal and modification to the 2014 Farm Bill that expired the end of September, and while most of the law’s major functions continued until Congress passed new legislation, the conservation elements of the bill were left up in the air.
The $5 billion figure represents full-funding, and included increased funding of conservation measured touted by hunting, fishing, and environmental community.
— The Agriculture Conservation Easement Program saw its funding increase from $250 million per year to approximately $450 million. This funding assists landowners with the protection, restoration, and improvement of wetland easements. This not only enhances fish and migratory bird habitat on big swaths of private land, primarily in the Midwest, but it also boosts hunting and fishing access to these lands. That is accomplished through the Program’s three primary elements ñ Swampbuster, Sodsaver, and the Conservation Reserve Program, known by sportsmen simply as CRP.
The bill maintains strong wetland conservation compliance, known as ìSwampbuster,î and strengthens ìSodsaverî grasslands protections. Combined, Swampbuster and Sodsaver provide critical safeguards for the wetlands and grasslands that comprise a significant amount of our waterfowl and upland bird habitat in the United States.
CRP acreage will grow by three million to a total of 27 million acres under this voluntary program, which offers incentives to landowners to remove highly erodible and environmentally sensitive lands from production. This increase will provide much-needed upland habitat and water quality improvements.
— The bill boosts the funds dedicated to wildlife habitat practices under the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) from five percent to 10 percent of the program’s total funds. This will dramatically increase the amount of money available for farmers and ranchers to actually create and improve wildlife habitat on working lands for species such as the greater sage grouse and monarch butterfly.
— Funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) tripled to $300 million a year to be spent on landscape-scale watershed projects that increase wildlife habitat while boosting water quantity and quality. This program is used everywhere from the Chesapeake Bay to the Columbia River to build resiliency in the face of pollution and drought.
— Especially important for hunting is that the bill provides an additional $10 million in funding for the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. This assures the public will continue to have access to nearly a million acres of private land opened under this program for everything from hiking to hunting and fishing.
The bill’s passage was lauded by a wide range of conservation and hunting groups, but especially from the upland and waterfowl hunting community.
ìThis is the first time CRP acres have increased since the 1996 Farm Bill. 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,î said Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
ìOn behalf of the more than one million members and supporters of Ducks Unlimited, we’d like to thank Congress for their steadfast support of our nation’s wetlands and waterfowl through the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. By providing full-funding for the conservation title, Congress ensures that these voluntary, incentive-based conservation programs will continue to create opportunities to work with farmers, ranchers, and landowners across the country. Without their cooperation, Ducks Unlimited could not reach our goal of filling the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever,î said Dale Hall, CEO of Ducks Unlimited.
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