The news from Congress has been pretty grim lately for wildlife, but our persistence has paid off with at least one major victory. Last week, the U.S. Senate approved a Farm Bill amendment that reinstates vital protections for wetlands and highly erodible lands from conversion to crops.
It may not sound like a big deal, but the provision (known as “conservation compliance”) prevents farm subsidy recipients from destroying sensitive habitat needed to sustain native plants and animals. Without this measure, row crops could stretch for miles, end-to-end, without the critical buffers around streams, river banks and delicate outcroppings that offer refuge for wildlife.
Conservation compliance was first introduced as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, requiring any farmer participating in certain subsidy programs to develop and comply with an approved conservation plan. Unfortunately, the 1996 Farm Bill altered the provision, and since then conservation compliance has not been tied to crop insurance subsidies.
Thanks to an amendment offered by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) to the current Farm Bill, conservation compliance will once again be tied to crop subsidies. In other words, any producers receiving tax-payer subsidized crop insurance will become ineligible for these subsidies if they convert highly-erodible land or wetlands to crops. Producers will also have to develop and comply with an approved conservation plan.
Because crop insurance is such a popular program for farmers, this one seemingly small change will have far-reaching impacts. If the amendment is included in the final bill endorsed by the House of Representatives, it will ensure that wildlife habitat remains on up to 250 million acres of farmland – the same acreage as all of the land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.
Having conservation compliance helps create “shelter-belts” that support up to 90 species of breeding birds by allowing greater nest densities. Without these marginal habitats, literally millions of birds would not be able to survive throughout America’s vast farm landscapes. They also provide buffers that improve water quality by preventing erosion and reducing pollution from pesticides and fertilizer.
We’ll be working hard when the Farm Bill is taken up by the House later this year to make sure this provision is included. We’ll also be fighting to increase the overall funding for wildlife conservation, habitat restoration and projects to protect and improve water quality, all of which were cut by 25 percent in the Senate.
It’s going to be an uphill battle, but our nation’s wildlife is well worth fighting for.