Senate Urged to Reject House Cuts to USDA Conservation Programs

On March 1st, thirty-five agriculture and conservation groups sent a letter to the U.S. Senate, urging senators to reject disproportionately high cuts to agriculture conservation programs in the House-passed appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2011 (H.R. 1).  H.R. 1 would cut USDA and FDA discretionary spending–including critical funding for conservation technical assistance for farmers, ranchers and foresters–by 22 percent, more than 50 percent higher than the non-defense average cut of 14 percent. 

“We understand the critical need to right America’s fiscal ship, but…rural America’s contribution to deficit reduction should not be larger than other sectors, and…conservation’s contribution should likewise be proportional,” said the letter by the 35 groups, including Environmental Defense Fund, National Farmers Union and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  “Unfortunately, the House-passed FY2011 appropriations bill, H.R. 1, not only far overshoots reasonable reduction levels, but also singles out funding for agriculture and rural America for a disproportionately high cut.  These conservation programs are crucial to the health and viability of agriculture and rural America.”

H.R. 1 also unfairly singles out for additional cuts the mandatory funding for conservation and renewable energy programs provided by the 2008 Farm Bill, which both the House and Senate passed with broad bipartisan support.   It would cut more than half a billion dollars from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) relative to the direct spending levels provided by the 2008 Farm Bill.

“They [conservation programs] deliver demonstrated environmental benefits including clean air, clean water, and abundant habitat for wildlife,” the groups noted.  “They protect soil and farmland to provide lasting food security.  And they bring important money and jobs to rural areas, including increased revenues from hunting, fishing, and other recreational activities.”

Demand for enrollment in these conservation programs routinely exceeds the funds available, even without any cuts.  Farmers and ranchers are waiting to enroll over 1,000,000 acres in the Wetlands Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program.  Applications for the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program often outstrip available funds by two to three times. 

The impact of permanent reductions to mandatory conservation programs is magnified because the funding is reduced for multiple years, though only the first year is credited for appropriations budgeting purposes.  As a result, the savings are not fully realized, and further pressure is put on the farm bill baseline only a year before a new bill must be written. 

“Failure to support our farmers, ranchers, foresters, and natural resource base today will jeopardize our agricultural industry, drive up long term costs for environmental mitigation, and threaten our nation’s food security,” the groups concluded.  “We ask the Senate to recognize the importance of agricultural conservation programs and ensure that reasonable funding levels are continued.  Ensuring that cuts are minimized today will give Congress the latitude to address these crucial issues in the upcoming farm bill debate.”

Below is the complete list of groups that signed the letter:

American Farmland Trust
American Rivers
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Environmental Defense Fund
Gifford Pinchot Task Force
Gulf Restoration Network
Izaak Walton League of America
Land Trust Alliance
Michael Fields Agricultural Institute
Midwest Environmental Advocates
Missouri Coalition for the Environment
National Association of Conservation Districts
National Audubon Society
National Farmers Union
National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
National Network of Forest Practitioners
National Organic Coalition
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
National Wildlife Federation
National Woodland Owners Association
Organic Farming Research Foundation
Organic Trade Association
Partners for Sustainable Pollination
Pinchot Institute
Pollinator Partnership
Prairie Rivers Network
Sierra Club
Soil and Water Conservation Society
Sustainable Northwest
Tennessee Clean Water Network
The Nature Conservancy
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership
Union of Concerned Scientists
Water Environment Federation
Wallowa Resources

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