The new five-year Farm Bill approved by Congress in December provides some important wins for wetlands – and for the people, fish, and wildlife that depend on wetlands.
The bill provides full funding for conservation programs, including those that help farmers restore and protect wetlands. Farm Bill conservation programs are the largest single source of funding for private lands conservation in America.
Changes to several key programs in the new Farm Bill should provide increased opportunities to restore and protect wetlands. An increase in funding for a program that supports recreation access could give waterfowl hunters and others access to more wetlands on private land.
The League worked hard to protect Swampbuster, a common-sense provision that ensures farmers who receive subsidies for crop production, crop insurance, conservation assistance, and farm loans cannot drain or fill wetlands to grow crops. We asked Congress to provide additional funds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to use spot checks to ensure farmers are complying with Swampbuster. We also asked USDA to make better use of modern technologies to identify wetlands under Swampbuster, such as spring satellite imagery that can identify wetlands used by migrating ducks and geese. The League partnered with National Wildlife Federation to produce a brief on the importance of Swampbuster in protecting wetlands.
The final Farm Bill maintains Swampbuster protection for wetlands. That could prove to be even more important if federal agencies remove Clean Water Act protection for most rural wetlands, as they are proposing.
The new law does not provide added funds to enforce Swampbuster, and it does not require that USDA make proper use of new technologies to accurately identify wetlands. We will continue to ask USDA to fix both of these shortcomings.
The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) provides funds that purchase conservation easements to protect wetlands, prairies, and other farmland. The program also provides funds to conserve farmed wetlands by restoring the wetland hydrology and vegetation that make wetlands so valuable for wildlife, flood control, water quality, and groundwater recharge.
The new Farm Bill will increase funding for ACEP to $450 million per year, an increase of about 11% over the funds provided in the 2014 Farm Bill. While the increase was not as much as the League and other conservation groups asked for, it is significant and will help restore and permanently protect more wetlands. The bill also includes changes to ACEP that will make it more flexible and easier for conservation groups to use to obtain wetland easements.
Conservation Reserve Program
The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) offers farmers 10- or 15-year contracts to take sensitive land out of production and plant grasses, shrubs, or trees that conserve soil, protect water quality, and restore wildlife habitat. Over 2.3 million enrolled acres – more than 10% of CRP contracts – are being used to restore and protect wetlands or provide buffers around wetlands.
The new Farm Bill increases the maximum number of acres that can be enrolled in CRP contracts to 27 million – an increase of 3 million acres. However, the bill will also reduce the payments landowners are offered for these contracts.
Whether the changes result in a net increase or decrease in wetlands protected by the Conservation Reserve Program will depend on whether farmers are willing to accept less money to take farmed wetlands out of production and whether USDA continues to prioritize wetland conservation under the program. The League will be working with USDA to ensure wetland conservation remains a priority under CRP and other conservation programs in the Farm Bill.
The new Farm Bill will ramp up annual funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to over $2 billion per year by 2023, up from $1.75 billion this year. The new law earmarks 10% of EQIP funds for projects that benefit wildlife habitat (up from 5%) – a provision for which the League advocated. Together, that will increase EQIP dollars for wildlife habitat to $200 million by 2023 (from about $60 million in recent years). The new Farm Bill also allows for longer EQIP contracts – up to 10 years for contracts that benefit wildlife – and will let farmers use the program to maintain small seasonal wetlands or to flood a field after harvest to provide migratory habitat.
The bill expands funding for and streamlines the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). This could encourage more federal-state-local partnerships to restore and protect wetlands on farm or ranch land.
The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program will get an increase in funding to $50 million over 5 years (up from $40 million over 5 years in the 2014 Farm Bill). The Voluntary Public Access program supports state and Tribal walk-in hunting, fishing, and recreation access programs.
The new Farm Bill also directs the Secretary of Agriculture to use $3 million of the allocation to encourage public access on wetlands protected by USDA easements. That will help people who fish, hunt, or hike find more wetlands and other private land to enjoy the outdoors.
Continuing Commitment to Conservation
Overall, the League didn’t get everything we asked for in the new Farm Bill, but Congress renewed America’s commitment to funding vital farm and ranch conservation programs for another five years. The bill delivered some clear wins for wetlands. Working with USDA, state and local governments, and other conservation organizations, the League can help ensure these programs deliver as many benefits as possible for our wetlands, waters, soil, and wildlife.