R Street brief notes farm bill could spell big trouble for hunters

WASHINGTON (Sept. 16, 2014) – Failure by Congress to attach key accountability provisions to federal crop insurance subsidies would have devastating results for hunters and anglers, according to a new policy short from the R Street Institute.

The report from R Street Senior Fellow R.J. Lehmann looks at the proposed farm bill currently moving through Congress and how it treats so-called “conservation compliance” programs. Since 1985, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has required farmers to file an approved conservation plan if they farm highly erodible land, and to avoid converting wetlands to agricultural use at all, or risk losing federal supports such as commodity support payments, disaster payments, farm loans and conservation program payments.

However, with plans to eliminate the USDA’s direct payments program in favor of expanded crop insurance subsidies, including the creation of new “shallow loss” programs, there is a real risk that the farm bill will encourage converting sensitive land to agriculture, Lehmann said. Conservation compliance requirements have not applied to federal subsidies to purchase crop insurance since 1996. While provisions re-attaching conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies were included in the version of the farm bill passed by the U.S. Senate, they were left out of the U.S. House’s version of the legislation.

Since 1982, conservation compliance has helped save 295 million tons of soil per year and similarly reduced wetlands draining, thus protecting wildlife habitats for hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers alike to enjoy, Lehmann said. According to the hunting and conservation group Ducks Unlimited, at stake in the conservation compliance debate is between 7 million and 14 million acres of highly erodible lands and between 1.5 million and 3.3 million acres of wetlands across the country that currently aren’t farmed.

“These facts mark conservation compliance as another success story in the world of market-based approaches to environmental policy, and one that sportsmen, sportswomen and free-market groups alike can heartily endorse,” Lehmann wrote.

Lehmann noted that conservation compliance is of particular importance in the 118 million-acre Prairie Pothole Region, encompassing parts of Minnesota, Montana, Iowa, and North and South Dakota. The region, which is prime habitat for up to 67 percent of North America’s breeding waterfowl and other migratory birds, already has seen wetland loss rates of between 0.05 to 0.57 percent per year and grassland loss rates at between 0.4 to 1.3 percent, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A Government Accountability Office report fingers conversion to cropland as the leading cause of the decline.

“What is most astonishing about these developments is the degree to which they result not just from an insufficient commitment to conservation, nor from growth of some unregulated sector of the economy,” Lehmann wrote. “Rather, they are the direct result of government policy to subsidize both ethanol and risky agricultural behavior.”

A copy of the full paper can be found here.

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