Inflation Reduction Act Is a Big Win for Conservation

Duane Hovorka
Duane Hovorka with partners - credit Duane Hovorka

On August 16 President Biden signed legislation that will provide $19.5 billion over the next few years to expand conservation, reduce water pollution and combat climate change across tens of millions of acres of farms and ranches nationwide.

The Izaak Walton League of America has been working for two years to push Congress to provide this vital investment that could help transform crop and livestock production in the U.S.

The conservation funds are part of the Inflation Reduction Act, sweeping legislation designed to deliver $369 billion for solar, wind and biofuel energy generation, energy conservation and other strategies to address climate change.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said, “With the passage of this historic bill, Americans will see their energy costs go down while we tackle the urgent threats we face every day from the climate crisis. We are equipping farmers, foresters, and rural communities with the necessary tools to be a part of the solution.”

Transforming Agriculture

The $19.5 billion in agriculture investments will help the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) meet the growing interest among farmers and ranchers in improving conservation by eliminating plowing, growing winter cover crops, reducing pesticide use, and installing new fencing and water systems to better manage livestock.

Those new conservation systems can substantially:

  • improve water quality by reducing polluted runoff into rivers and lakes,
  • reduce farms’ climate footprint,
  • enhance wildlife habitat,
  • restore healthy soils, and
  • help reduce use of dangerous chemical fertilizer and pesticides.

In 2019 and 2020, more than 70 percent of farmers and ranchers who applied for help through some federal conservation programs were turned down. That represents tens of millions of acres of onservation that could have been applied to farmland – but was not.

The new conservation funding could help transform American agriculture by putting soil health at the center of on-farm decisions. If properly focused, the investments could:

Improve 100 million acres of native prairie and other grassland through better grazing management. Healthier grasslands provide better habitat for grassland birds, butterflies and other pollinators, and they capture and store large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Regenerate healthy soils through the planting of winter cover crops and other practices on tens of millions of acres of cropland. Cover crops feed the soil, provide nutrients that can later reduce or eliminate the need for chemical fertilizer, and provide winter habitat for birds, pollinators and other wildlife.

Restore and protect 250,000 acres of wetlands and provide permanent protection for over one million acres of native prairie and perhaps a half million acres of forest that might otherwise be cleared. Wetlands are wildlife magnets but we have lost over half of the wetlands we once had in the continental U.S., and native prairie is North America’s most endangered ecosystem.

Develop soil health plans for hundreds of thousands of farms and ranches using expertise from USDA, local conservation districts, private soil health advisors, soil health organizations, and rural cooperatives. Healthier soils grow more nutritious food and hold more water, reducing flooding and polluted runoff and making farmland more resilient to drought.

The legislation is a one-time infusion of cash over several years that can do a lot to put conservation measures in place on America’s farmland. It is a huge win for conservation.

The new legislation will help address the long-term problem of USDA conservation programs that are perennially under-funded. Farmers and ranchers are clamoring for conservation information, advice and assistance.

Congress can take the next step forward to lock in future funding for farm and ranch conservation programs when it writes a new Farm Bill next year. The League will be fighting to make sure that happens.

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Top photo: Seen at a recent visit to Capitol Hill are, from left, Dawn Breitkreutz, Minnesota farmer and president of the Soil Health Academy, Finian Makepeace, policy director for Kiss the Ground, and Duane Hovorka, agriculture program director for the League.

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