Breaking up the land

The Good and the Bad of the Farm Bill

Tim Male, Vice President of Conservation Science & Policy 

The majority of America’s rare wildlife not only depends on private lands, but is also ‘conservation reliant,’ meaning that it needs to be actively protected and monitored in order for the species to survive, like the whooping crane, a native to this country’s great flyways that needs a great deal of help. By actively maintaining healthy landscapes on private lands, we are not only providing wildlife with essential habitat, but are, at the same time, preserving places vitally important to the human community. From sage grouse protection in Montana, to efforts to save brown trout in Pennsylvania streams, simply stated, the Farm Bill is one of the most important sources of funding for critical restoration work on the private lands that sustain so much of our wildlife and positively impact people throughout the whole country.

Whooping Crane

That said, depending on how it is written, federal support for agriculture – i.e. the ‘Farm Bill’ – can be either a blessing or a curse for wildlife. On one hand, past Farm Bills have provided up to $6 billion a year to support farmers who voluntarily make efforts to protect land and water, restore habitat or reduce environmental threats. Some of these programs have provided tens of millions of dollars to directly help endangered species. The most well-known of these programs is the Conservation Reserve Program which helps to keep millions of acres of important habitat available to endangered wildlife. Other programs have made it a requirement that farmers make some effort to protect sensitive soil and wetlands in order to receive crop subsidies, a policy that has protected habitat on more than 100 million acres across America.

On the other hand, overly generous taxpayer subsidies (that often go to the richest farmers like Jon Bon Jovi, Warren Buffet’s brother, or Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher) included in the bill can be devastating to wildlife. Such subsidies ultimately encourage farmers to plow more lands than necessary – lands that are typically risky places to farm because of poor soils, steep slopes or frequent droughts or floods, but would otherwise make perfect wildlife habitat areas. When taxpayers assume all of the risk through these large subsidies, however, the farmer has little to lose by farming these less productive plots.

Two weeks ago, the Senate passed its current version of the Farm Bill, making some important improvements that we supported. In particular, Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman Senator Stabenow worked to include requirements for farmers to take modest steps to protect the environment in exchange for taxpayer subsidies. Most of America’s corn, cotton, wheat and soybean farmers have already been doing this for more than 20 years. Because one type of direct payment to farmers was going to be replaced by a more generous crop insurance subsidy, there was a risk that this original conservation deal between farmers and taxpayers could be lost, but Chairwoman Stabenow worked with both Republicans and Democrats to ensure that didn’t happen.

California cropland (©Mancio7B9/Flickr)

California cropland (©Mancio7B9/Flickr)

The version of the Farm Bill that went through the House of Representatives was a different story altogether. It didn’t include even the basic conservation protections that the Senate version had contained. The House of Representatives’ farm bill would have cut $4.8 billion from the budget for conservation programs and limited how much of that funding could actually be spent directly on wildlife programs like the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), which helps participating landowners to create habitat on their lands. This would have severely limited conservation on agricultural lands. It also would have limited Clean Water Act protections on pesticide use over water, despite the fact that more than 1,000 rivers and lakes already suffer from high pesticide pollution levels, which threaten humans and the environment, as well as all forms of wildlife. Finally, the bill would have prevented states from regulating wildlife threats like invasive species on their own, which would effectively allow for unrestricted movement of such threats across our state borders.

Dramatically increasing crop insurance subsidies without requiring farmers to restrict planting on highly erodible and ecologically sensitive lands will only serve to incentivize the greater destruction of wildlife habitat that is already occurring. Providing farmers with even larger amounts of taxpayer money without requiring them to protect ecologically sensitive lands would only serve to incentivize the destruction of wildlife habitat. We had hoped to help the House of Representatives develop and pass a Farm Bill that could benefit both farmers and wildlife, but without protections in place to preserve valuable habitat and landscapes, we had no choice but to oppose the bill’s passage.

We aren’t sure yet what’s next for the Farm Bill, but we are hopeful that the focus will return to protecting sensible conservation measures. It is important to give farmers the tools to be strong stewards of America’s wildlife and its critically important habitats.

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