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Keep CSP, ag groups urge - House Ag proposal raises concern

WASHINGTON — The Conservation Stewardship Program is America's largest working lands conservation program. So two conservation-minded agriculture groups are predictably upset by a House Agriculture Committee proposal that they say would gut the CSP.

"Terminating the Conservation Stewardship Program undermines farmers' and ranchers' abilities to implement conservative practices on their land," Anna Johnson, policy associate for Lyons, Neb.-based Center for Rural Affairs, said in a statement.

The Republican-controlled House Ag Committee on April 12 released its draft of the farm bill, the centerpiece of U.S. food and ag policy. The current farm bill expires this fall, and the U.S. House and Senate are working on their respective versions. The final legislation must be approved by both bodies and then signed into law by President Donald Trump.

The House Ag Committee version includes "folding the best features of the CSP" into the Environmental Quality Incentive Program," or EQIP, another popular conservation program, according to material from the committee.

But the proposal would in fact "eradicate" the CSP, in which about 70 million acres nationwide are enrolled, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a grassroots alliance that advocates for sustainability of ag, natural resources and rural communities.

EQIP focuses on specific conservation practices with a one-time cost sharing arrangement. CSP, in turn, helps farmers implement comprehensive stewardship systems on their land.

The House draft bill would add "stewardship contracts" into EQIP, with the contracts retaining the core elements of CSP, according to the House Ag Committee.

But the proposal would eliminate nearly all of those core elements, while also cutting funding for stewardship projects, the National Sustainable Ag Coalition said.

The organization notes that both CSP and EQIP are highly popular with farmers, so much so that they don't have enough funding for all qualified applicants.

More could be known about CSP's future after the House Ag Committee April 18 markup of the draft. Markup is the process in which congressional committees and subcommittees debate, amend and rewrite proposed legislation.

"We hope the House of Representatives can make needed amendments to improve this bill, restore these valuable programs (one of them CSP) and reach bipartisan agreement," Johnson said.