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Published June 03, 2013, 10:53 AM

Conservation vital element of farm bill

Every U.S. citizen is affected by the farm bill. That includes farmers and ranchers, of course, but also the majority of Americans who enjoy clean water, affordable food and the outdoors.

By: Dale Hall, Agweek

As agriculture committees in the House and Senate turn attention to considering and reporting their out a five-year farm bill, it’s important to consider how many Americans have felt the negative impact of not having a comprehensive bill.

Every U.S. citizen is affected by the farm bill. That includes farmers and ranchers, of course, but also the majority of Americans who enjoy clean water, affordable food and the outdoors.

In the midst of an extreme drought hitting the United States, the House of Representatives allowed the farm bill, which ensured drought funding, to expire during the last session of Congress.

Farmers and ranchers can’t make long-term plans for their crops or lands without knowing which programs will be funded or eliminated.

Outdoor enthusiasts are losing recreation opportunities because of lost or degraded wildlife habitat. The wetlands and grasslands that conserve soil and keep our rivers and lakes clean are being converted to marginally productive agriculture land.

Loss of habitat

Habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife is being lost at a rate not seen since the Dust Bowl. A South Dakota State University study found that more than 1.3 million acres of grasslands have been converted to crop since 2006.

The study also concluded that crop insurance policies in the current farm bill could encourage farmers to take greater risks in where to plant, putting in jeopardy native prairies and wetlands that provide habitat and also many societal benefits, including clean water.

Ducks Unlimited joins the many conservation, commodity, agriculture and forestry groups asking both houses of Congress to pass a five-year farm bill before the extension expires in September. We are also asking for the farm bill to maintain and, in some cases, strengthen conservation programs:

• Re-couple conservation compliance to crop insurance. Farmers need a safety net against catastrophic weather events and volatile markets, but taxpayer resources should not be used to incentivize wetland drainage and habitat destruction.

• Protect native prairie with a national Sodsaver program. More than 70 percent of the nation’s original grasslands have been lost. Loss of native prairie reduces available grazing lands, increases soil erosion and destroys critical habitat for waterfowl, pheasants and many other wildlife. This provision still protects landowner rights to operate their land as they choose, but a Sodsaver program would reduce the amount taxpayers subsidize crop insurance coverage on ground that has never been farmed.

• Preserve conservation programs. A five-year bill is necessary to provide for the continuation of vital conservation programs. Once conservation programs are eliminated, it will be much more difficult to renew funding for them.

DU encourages anyone who enjoys the outdoors to contact their member of Congress. Tell them conservation programs are an integral part of this year’s five-year farm bill.

Editor’s Note: Hall was the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is currently CEO of wetlands conservation group Ducks Unlimited.

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