The federal Farm Bill provides $20 billion a year to farmers in commodity payments, crop insurance subsidies, and conservation payments, and billions more in guaranteed farm loans. Farmers who accept a share of these payments must agree to refrain from draining or filling wetlands to grow crops, a provision known as “Swampbuster”, and they must agree to adopt a soil conservation plan if they farm highly erodible land (“Sodbuster”). Both provisions were enacted in 1985.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture helps farmers abide by the rule by giving them maps showing the wetlands on their property protected by Swampbuster. USDA employees sometimes visit the farm and identify wetlands based on the presence of wetland vegetation and wetland soil in a low-lying area that would typically have standing water at least part of the year. Other times, they use aerial photographs, satellite images and other technology to identify and map the wetlands.
However, the aerial photographs USDA has relied on for over 30 years are images taken in July or August that are used to identify planted crops. Those photos, taken in the hottest part of the summer after many seasonal wetlands have dried up, miss many of the seasonal wetlands that provide vital migratory and nesting habitat to ducks, geese, and other wildlife in the spring and other parts of the year.
Today, satellite images and other modern technology are available that will help USDA accurately map wetlands. USDA should use the best technology, along with onsite visits, to ensure that seasonal wetlands that deliver benefits for wildlife are accurately mapped and protected from destruction.