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The next few months will determine the landscape of conservation for years to come!



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July 01, 2007
In mid-April, a media summit took place on the grounds of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation in Dundee, Ill., about a 45-minute drive west of Chicago. The topic: the 2002 Farm Bill, which expires this year. Or, to be more precise, the topic was the recommendations conservation groups are pushing as Congress considers renewing the bill in 2007.



The Farm Bill is one of the most multi-layered and wide-reaching pieces of legislation one can find. Its 10 different "titles" or sections illustrate the degree to which the Farm Bill extends into so many areas of American life. The titles include, Commodity Programs, Conservation, Trade, Nutrition, Credit, Rural Development, Research, Forestry, Energy, and in case legislators forgot something, "Miscellaneous."

Specific areas addressed in the titles give an even better picture of the diversity and extent of the Farm Bill. For example, the bill concerns such varied subjects as "fairness in international trade," the ability of rural areas to receive broadband Internet service, Food Stamps, and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

As its name suggests, the CRP is one of the programs found in the Farm Bill's Title II, Conservation. And since the recent media summit was organized by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) the discussion centered on recommendations for programs within that title.

And as its name suggests, the TRCP attempts to bring together both individual grassroots groups and larger conservation organizations in an effort to ensure the continuation of the hunting and fishing traditions that were so dear to America's 26th president. It keeps an eye on and tackles the larger issues that ultimately concern all sportsmen and women. In that manner, the TRCP is probably the closest thing to a national consortium for hunters' and anglers' concerns as you're going to find.

For two years, representatives of 15 conservation organizations met as the Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group (AWWG) of the TRCP to study the 2002 Farm Bill and to make recommendations for the 2007 version. Some of the associations represented were Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever, Quail Unlimited, the Ruffed Grouse Society, Trout Unlimited, the North American Grouse Partnership, the American Sportfishing Association, the Isaac Walton League, and the National Wildlife Federation.

Some of their findings might be surprising: The past three Farm Bills, administered by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, have shaped more conservation programs for a longer period of time than any other suite of legislation. The Farm Bill's annual budget for the Conservation Title alone is more than $5 billion, which is two-and-a-half times larger than that of the entire U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's budget.

The ramifications of a U.S. without the Farm Bill Conservation Title: 13.5 million fewer pheasants, 2.2 million fewer ducks, 40 million fewer acres of wildlife habitat, 450 million additional tons of topsoil disappearing every year and an additional 170,000 miles of unprotected streams.

The proposals backed by the AWWG support seven Farm Bill Conservation Title programs. CRP encourages farmers to manage their lands in such a way that provides more habitat for wildlife; its sub-component, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) forges partnerships that allow participants to receive incentives for installing conservation practices identified by individual states. Other programs and their focuses: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) shares costs with farmers and ranchers for installing conservation measures; Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), helps landowners interested primarily in fish and wildlife management; Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) offers landowners payment for protecting, restoring and enhancing wetlands on their properties; Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) helps farmers to protect and restore grasslands while maintaining grazing lands; Conservation Security Program (CSP) offers incentives for meeting established standards of conservation and environmental management on working croplands; and Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) helps farmers and ranchers keep their farms in agriculture.

The AWWG also noted and made recommendations for other "Farm Bill Conservation Priorities" among which are some in the area of "biofuels, biomass and other energy sources."

Any discussion of the Farm Bill must be framed within the context of other realities, such as the war, budget demands and globalization. Such context adds a complexity, one that revolves around our nation's dependence on foreign oil, the need to develop alternative fuel sources and the notion that corn-based ethanol is not going to be the best way to go in the long run.

As best as I understand it, those concerns play out something like this: Currently, farmers can make more per acre by putting their land into corn than into CRP. While corn-based ethanol seems to be the wave of the future, experts already agree that by the time the U.S. reaches major production of that fuel, the negative effects of such production will outpace the positive. Ethanol can also be made from other grains and from "biomass" sources such as corncobs, cornstalks, wheat straw, rice straw, switchgrass, and vegetable and forestry waste. But the technology that would allow for the production of such fuel sources on the grand scale needed just isn't there yet.

The challenge then is to construct and promote the Conservation Title programs in such a manner that encourages landowners to consider more ecologically friendly alternatives to planting corn in every inch of every available acre.

According to TRCP Director of Communications Tim Pink, the AWWG's work "doesn't address corn at all, but some of its proposals would have as an effect the movement from corn to switchgrass fuels."

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, Chair of the Agricultural, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, has lent his support to the efforts of the TCRP and issued a statement prepared for this summit.

The Conservation Title, he said, "has the potential to be the centerpiece of our national conservation policies on agricultural land, and I will work to restore funding and redirect the program to achieve that goal."

Sending a clear message on the importance of the Farm Bill, and in a rare show of bipartisanship in Washington these days, Charles F. Conner, the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture spoke to the assembled group. Among his comments he stressed "the need for a conservation-based Farm Bill."

President Bush "believes the 2007 reauthorization of the Farm Bill is one of the most important items remaining on his agenda over the rest of his term."

Conner said the proposal recommends a $7.8 billion increase, "more than any other program."

Conner also went into detail about the growing popularity of ethanol, how corn prices are high because of that, and the dangers of being shortsighted with respect to land use.

"The next few months are going to be critical. The next few months will determine the landscape of conservation for years to come."

For information on the Farm Bill: www. usda.gov. Click on the "Farm Bill" link under "Spotlights."

For a discussion of the Conservation Title, its current programs and the AWWG's recommendations: www.trcp.org. Click on the "Growing Conservation in the Farm Bill" link.

For an overview of the Farm Bill's reach on a regional level: www.healthylakes.org. On the right side, click on the link for the "New Report: Farm Bill Programs Vital to Restore Great Lakes."

The timeline is to have this bill in front of the president by August, so the time for contacting Senators and Representatives is now.

Contact info, Michigan's U.S. Senators: Carl Levin, 202-224-1388 (fax), http://levin.senate.gov/contact/index.cfm; Debbie Stabenow, prefers email: http://stabenow.senate.gov/email.htm. n

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