Watchdog Report Indicates Checks Were Written But On-Farm Conservation Was Never Verified

USDA’s Inspector General points to botched implementation of compliance checks that ensure real benefits go to fish and wildlife habitat on private lands

After thousands of hours of work, hundreds of meetings with Congressional staff, and three years of shared effort with colleagues that had become like family, I poured a tall Maker’s Mark when the president signed the 2014 Farm Bill at a special ceremony in Michigan. The law included bipartisan language that extended conservation compliance to the federal crop insurance program, the importance of which would be difficult to overstate. Was it the perfect compliance provision? Honestly, no. But politics is still the art of the possible, and I believe it was the strongest provision possible.

After all of that effort from so many folks, it is more frustrating than usual to hear from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) watchdog agency that the provision the TRCP prioritized over all others has not been implemented with the vigor it requires. This should not only alarm sportsmen-conservationists but also the American taxpayer.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

For the uninitiated, conservation compliance can be explained like this: It’s a way for taxpayers to be sure that, in exchange for farm support payments, farmers are meeting a minimal threshold for avoiding environmental harm. Conservation compliance has applied to almost all USDA support programs since 1985, and the 2014 Farm Bill expanded compliance requirements to the federal crop insurance program, which has grown over the years to be the biggest farm support program. Conservation compliance is not onerous for farmers, most of whom have been subject to the requirements for years.

But a report issued in March by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), which serves as the internal watchdog at the USDA, outlined a serious problem with the enforcement of conservation compliance. Many tracts of land that were subject to compliance were not being included in the random checks performed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In fact, in 2015, the first year after the new Farm Bill was passed, ten states—including major agricultural hubs like Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota—had zero tracts subject to random compliance checks. That’s right. Zero. In Iowa!

The report mostly points to a lack of coordination between several USDA agencies, and it cites the need for a “Memorandum of Understanding” between those agencies to ensure a better universe of data and that an actual human being at each agency is held responsible for appropriate implementation. Frankly, these are typical shortcomings of a large bureaucracy that no one would describe as nimble. But what is at stake is critically important: water quality and the health of potentially innumerable wetlands, not to mention the continued defensibility of these financial support programs to the American taxpayer.

But let’s get to the main thrust of the problem: a bureaucratic lack of desire. The USDA is a department that for a hundred years has been in the business of writing checks to producers. Its stock-in-trade is financial incentives that smooth out the inherent risks of agriculture, making life more predictable for American farmers—and that is a laudable thing. This incentive-based business model is why the USDA is still a relatively popular federal entity; as a result, USDA finds it difficult to risk losing the popularity that comes with spreading the wealth. It is nice to be loved.

But the law must be enforced, and the USDA has a responsibility—not just to agricultural producers, but also to the American taxpayers who have invested billions in farmland conservation and expect plentiful clean water in return.

We work hard on Capitol Hill to make sure that the laws passed by Congress aim for the best results possible for fish and wildlife habitat. That can be an all-consuming task. But we cannot forget that the job continues for years after the ink on those laws is dry. For the duration of this five-year Farm Bill, and as we turn our attention to the next one, the TRCP will continue our work; we must close the gaps in compliance enforcement that are unnecessarily costing us our wetlands, water quality, and hard-earned wages.

254 Groups Agree: Don’t Re-Open the Farm Bill

Congress needs to stay committed to funding levels set in 2014, and more sportsmen’s groups than ever before are joining the outcry. 

Yesterday, a broad coalition of 254 organizations—representing hunting and fishing, agriculture, nutrition, conservation, rural development, finance, forestry, energy, trade, local government, labor, equipment manufacturing, and crop insurance—delivered a letter to Congressional leadership urging them to reject calls for cuts to any Farm Bill program in the ongoing discussion of fiscal year 2017 spending bills. This diverse group includes a greater proportion of conservation and sportsmen’s groups than any previous coalition.

Image courtesy of Dusan Smetana.

It took Congress over three years of debate and compromise to send the 2014 Farm Bill to President Obama’s desk with bipartisan support. The result of that unprecedented effort was a Farm Bill that consolidated more than 100 programs and is estimated to save as much as $23 billion before 2024.

Many of the Farm Bill’s reforms impact sportsmen. On one hand, we saw the Conservation Reserve Program dramatically reduced from 32 million acres to just 24 million acres. On the other hand, the new Regional Conservation Partnership Program will deliver $1.2 billion through 2018 to projects benefitting clean water, soil health, and wildlife habitat.

Just as for sportsmen, there is some good and some bad in the Farm Bill for every one of the groups that signed the letter, but now is not the time to revisit the merits of the legislation. The conservation, farm, and food stakeholders all agreed to these reforms, so we want to see them preserved through the end of the current Farm Bill—not trimmed or debated again before their time.

Make no bones about it—when the Farm Bill needs to be reauthorized in 2018, all of us, including the TRCP, will fight for improvements to the programs that we care about. But, for now, we agree: Congress should uphold the existing agreement, and not re-open the Farm Bill this year.

You can read the letter here.

The Teddy Bear Delisting and ‘That Hunt’

You may know the tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s Mississippi black bear hunt in the fall of 1902, his second year in office. After all, it’s one of the most famous hunts to have taken place on American soil, and it inspired the most famous toy in the world – the Teddy Bear.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

But shortly after Roosevelt came to Mississippi in the early 1900s, over-hunting and agricultural development in the Delta’s swamps practically eliminated the Louisiana black bear from its native range in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. It was eventually listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a threatened species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1992, bringing about much concern from landowners, the timber industry, and wildlife professionals. This forward-thinking group hoped that the downward trend could be reversed and suitable black bear habitat within the region could be restored.

That same year, the Wetlands Reserve Program was instituted, building upon the successes of the Conservation Reserve Program, launched in 1985. Together, these programs resulted in the restoration of more than one million acres of black bear habitat, and black bear populations slowly began to rise across the bear’s historic range.

Now, Teddy’s bear is having a moment. After more than two decades of conservation efforts, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell has proposed removing the Louisiana black bear from the list of threatened and endangered species under the ESA. “The Louisiana black bear symbolizes how the Endangered Species Act can be a remarkably effective tool to protect and recover threatened and endangered species when we work in close partnership with states and other stakeholders,” Jewell said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, state agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners are all to thank for the Louisiana black bear’s success.

Image courtesy of USFWS.

According to Hunter Fordice, a landowner and son of Mississippi’s former governor, Kirk Fordice, “The first documented black bear cubs born in the Mississippi Delta in some 30 years were born in the middle of a 12-year-old Wetlands Reserve Program tract on my property in Issaquena County in 2007. The Wetlands Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program have restored hundreds of thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods across the Lower Mississippi Valley, which in turn has provided habitat suitable for the Louisiana black bear to once again thrive in its historical home range. As a landowner, it is very gratifying to see these conservation programs working so well.”

We think Roosevelt would be proud to see the population’s rebound and to know that the next generation of outdoorsmen will share the woods with the bear that “bears” his nickname. To celebrate, let’s hear the story of this famous hunt.

A Famous Hunt and Hunter

Almost every aspect of Roosevelt’s 1902 hunt at Smede’s farm was the responsibility of the uneducated, but extremely intelligent, 56-year-old Holt Collier, who was born into slavery and served as a Confederate scout before becoming a legend for his hunting skills. Roosevelt (who announced that he was to be addressed only as “Colonel” throughout the hunt) expressed his desire to participate in the chase. However his demands for a shot on the very first day, and the timidity of his hosts, condemned him to a stationary blind. He was placed to have a clear shot when the bear, driven by Collier’s pack of nearly 40 dogs, would emerge from one of the dense cane thickets on the farm.

Roosevelt and his hunting partner, Huger Foote, waited on the stand all morning. Around mid-afternoon they broke for lunch, annoying Collier, who’d worked extremely hard to bring a bear to that exact spot only to find the stand abandoned.  As Collier recalled,

“That was eight o’clock in the mornin’ when I hit the woods an’ roused my bear where I knowed I’d fin him. Den me an’ dat bear had a time, fightin’ an’ chargin’ an’ tryin’ to make him take a tree. Big ole bear but he wouldn’t climb nary tree. I could have killed him a thousand times… I sweated myself to death in that canebrake. So did the bear. By keeping between the bear and the river, I knew he’d sholy make for the water hole where I left the Cunnel [sic]. After a while the bear started that way and popped out of the gap where I said he’d go. But I didn’t hear a shot, and that pestered me… It sholy pervoked me because I’d promised the President to bring him a bear to that log, and there he was.”

-Holt Collier: His Life, His Roosevelt Hunts, and the Origin of the Teddy Bear by Minor Ferris Buchanan 

It was at this time that the bear turned on the dogs. This put Collier in quite the quandary. He had been given specific orders to save the bear for Roosevelt, who was not to be found, and yet he had to protect the dogs from the deadly bear.

Image courtesy of Dale Divers.

Collier dismounted, shouting at the bear. He approached the bear and tried to distract it as someone rode to camp to get the President. In the meantime, the bear and the dogs fought viciously, and at one point his prize dog was caught in the bear’s grip. Collier swung the stock of his gun and landed a blow to the base of the bear’s skull. Stunned, the bear dropped the dog and Collier seized the opportunity to place a lariat around the bear’s neck so that, when Roosevelt and Foote arrived several minutes later, the animal was tied to a tree.

President Roosevelt refused to claim the bear, citing a “true sportsmen’s code” which holds that the taking of any animal that does not have a sporting chance is forbidden. This famous hunting event inspired the first widespread discussion of the modern code of “fair chase,” a tenet of the Boone and Crockett Club which Roosevelt founded. It is the oldest conservation organization in North America and the second oldest in the world.

Although Roosevelt did not count the hunt as “successful,” the press thought it a most delightful story and spread word of it across the country. Roosevelt’s refusal to kill a defenseless animal was far more newsworthy than the taking of a trophy bear, and as the news spread, Brooklyn toy store owners Rose and Morris Michtom wrote to ask his permission to name their stuffed toy bears after him. The President approved, and “Teddy’s Bears” were born.


James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a Regular Member of the Boone and Crockett Club, and a member of the TRCP Policy Council.

Glassing The Hill: June 8 – 12

The TRCP’s scouting report on sportsmen’s issues in Congress

The Senate and House will be in session from Monday through Friday.

Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

The forecast calls for 100 degrees in Washington later this week, and things are heating up in Congress, as well. On Wednesday, the House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up their annual spending bill for many of the agencies in charge of natural resources management. In April, the House Appropriations Committee advanced fiscal year 2016 spending legislation that provided only $30.17 billion for the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Forest Service, and the EPA—that’s a $246-million cut from current spending levels. This will undoubtedly have negative impacts over the agencies who have been forced to work with increasingly shrinking budgets.

The Obama administration, who requested a 6-percent increase for EPA and an additional 8 percent for the Department of the Interior, has issued a veto threat on any spending plan that does not provide fair funding levels. This gap could result in another government shutdown in the coming months. Other looming threats: harmful policy riders that would undermine conservation initiatives and target the President’s climate change efforts.

Getting Around to Farm Bill Programs

On Thursday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry will hold a hearing on Farm Bill implementation. Members and panelists will discuss the implementation of vital programs designed to encourage farmers to employ more conservation-friendly practices in environmentally-sensitive areas. The Department of Agriculture is still taking formal comments under consideration as it releases its rules for the programs.

Among the programs being discussed are the Conservation Stewardship Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and Conservation Reserve Program. Quail Forever’s Director of Field Operations Jim Inglis is expected to testify and discuss the Conservation Reserve Program, Regional Conservation Partnerships, and viable implementation strategies. On May 29, the USDA announced that an additional 800,000 acres would be eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program and earmarked for lands with duck nesting habitat, wetland restoration initiatives, and state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE). However, Farm Bill supporters have been otherwise unimpressed by the roll-out of these critical programs.

More information on the hearing can be found here.

New Wave of Threats

Despite the historic release of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineer’s final rule that would clarify protections outlined in the Clean Water Act and protect over 20 million acres of wetlands, opponents of the “Waters of the U.S.” rule have not given up. This week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will markup Senator John Barrasso’s S.1140 which would force the administration to start over and craft another plan that would achieve the same ends.

The bill has strong support from the agricultural community and private industries that feel the rule is a gross federal overstep. The conservation and environmental communities remain in support of the rule, as do 80 scientists, who recently submitted a letter opposing S.1140. The bill will likely pass through the GOP-led committee, but it may face an uphill battle to acquire the necessary votes.

The legislative text can be found here.

This Week in Full:

Tuesday, June 9

Senate Hearing on energy reform and accountability

Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Wednesday, June 10      

House Hearing on WRRDA implementation, one year into enactment

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee

House Hearing on impact of Executive Order 13658 on public lands outfitters and guides

Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior

House Markup of fiscal 2016 Interior-EPA appropriations bill

Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee

Senate Markup of S. 1140, Federal Water Quality Protection Act

Senate Environment and Public Works

Senate Legislative hearing on the National Park System

Energy and Natural Resources

Thursday, June 11

House Hearing on farm bill conservation programs

Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry

Good Call: New Conservation Reserve Program Acres Will Enhance Duck Habitat in a Big Way

Today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that an additional 800,000 acres will be eligible for enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a Farm Bill initiative that has allowed agriculture producers to voluntarily conserve environmentally sensitive land—including prime wildlife habitat—for 30 years. Vilsack revealed this big boost to CRP, which he called “one of most successful conservation programs in the history of the country,” during his remarks to hunters and conservationists at the Ducks Unlimited National Convention in Milwaukee, Wis.

Image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The backdrop is fitting, since 300,000 of these additional acres will be devoted to lands with duck nesting habitat, potentially doubling CRP acres that can benefit ducks in the future. The remaining acres will be split: 100,000 to wetland restoration initiatives and 400,000 to state acres for wildlife enhancement (SAFE)—all good news for sportsmen. For its part, Ducks Unlimited was recognized by Vilsack for leading three separate USDA projects resulting in an overall investment of $25.8 million in conservation efforts across the country.

Vilsack also announced that a general sign-up period would begin in December 2015 to get the ball rolling on CRP enrollment, to which supporters of the program are saying, It’s about time. There hasn’t been a general sign-up since 2013, and more than 15 months after passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, regulation of CRP has been lacking. Enrollment was 1.7 million acres below the prescribed enrollment cap as of April 2015, with contracts for an additional 1.9 million acres set to expire on September 30.

The TRCP has been working closely with our partners in the sportsmen’s and wildlife community, USDA, and Congress to advance many aspects of the program that were addressed by Vilsack’s remarks today. Our Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group galvanized the 12 Senators who sent this letter to the Secretary, calling for a general sign-up to support full enrollment of CRP. And we’re very eager to see USDA complete implementation of the program, including the delayed rollout of a new CRP working grasslands enrollment option, which the department has said to expect later this summer.

For a program that, in just three decades, has grown to 32 times its original acreage and continues to facilitate on-the-ground conservation that strengthens rural economies, we’re expecting great things from CRP. With proper support, this important program can flourish like the wildlife and habitat it benefits.

Open Fields: Where Access and Habitat Coexist

Jared Wiklund is Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever’s public relations specialist. Contact Wiklund at jwiklund@pheasantsforever.org and follow him on Twitter at @wiklund247.

Publicly accessible land is THE trending topic in the American outdoor recreation community and a major discussion point for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever members. In fact, land access—or the current lack thereof—consistently ranks as one of the top reasons for members joining “The Habitat Organization.”

To help combat the access issue, the 2008 Farm Bill included a new provision called the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP), commonly known as “Open Fields.”  The goal of this program is to encourage private landowners to voluntarily open their land to the public for wildlife-dependent recreation, including hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and a host of other conservation organizations have adamantly supported these provisions.

Image by Roger Hill.

Of course, VPA-HIP is important for more than just access. Private landowners control some very important pieces of the conservation puzzle and dictate wildlife habitat/populations in North America. The traditional conservation model for state and federal agencies  is based on land acquisition and easements. VPA-HIP partnerships are redefining the process to open private lands to public recreation and habitat conservation. VPA-HIP provides an excellent opportunity for landowners to have a positive impact on our natural resources with added incentives.

Funding for VPA-HIP helps state and tribal governments boost existing public access programs as well as implement new programs that increase access to private lands. USDA was originally authorized to spend $50 million on VPA-HIP from 2009‐2012, though delays and legislative action ultimately reduced spending to just $9.1 million in 2011. Thankfully, an additional $20 million was allocated in 2014, and USDA recently announced another $20 million in funding for this unique program at the 2015 National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic.

Contrary to what some may think, voluntary public access programs are not found solely in western states. An impressive list of states and tribes from across the country have participated in VPA-HIP to open private lands for public access:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Confederated Tribes
    and Bands of the
    Yakama Nation
    (Washington)
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Montana
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Nearly 70 percent of land in the U.S. is in private ownership—a number that’s even higher in much of pheasant and bobwhite quail country.The more we can work with private land stewards for the betterment of natural resources, the brighter the future will be for wild things and wild places. If you are a proponent of public lands, we invite you to try hunting andrecreating on VPA-HIP land and to keep fighting for publicly-accessible lands with improved wildlife habitat.

 

From the good news desk: Sportsmen, farmers and feds team up on local solutions that make healthy watersheds

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced close to $800 million in federal funding for locally led solutions to regional conservation challenges via its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). The five-year, $1.2 billion federal program was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill to award funds to projects that improve soil health, water quality, water use efficiency, and wildlife habitat, as well as activities that otherwise support natural resources on private lands. In 2015, USDA has awarded $370 million to 115 high-impact projects across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, which will be bolstered by approximately $400 million from stakeholders. TRCP is a proud partner of the following 2015 RCPP project leads: Ducks Unlimited, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited.

To read more about RCPP projects improving working lands and wildlife habitat, click here.

Image by Michael Misurek.

Water is deeply personal. We tend to take it for granted until something happens to the water we drink or fish in. Even when a chemical spill shut off water to hundreds of thousands of West Virginians, most of us probably looked at it as a tragic news story rather than as motivation to examine whether our drinking water source is vulnerable, if our favorite trout stream is impaired or if our local wetland is at risk of destruction.

That’s why solutions to our water challenges are most successful when driven by local participation: those closest to the water know it best and have the greatest interest in fixing it the right way. However, because local leaders often do not have sufficient financial or technical resources available, locally-driven solutions work best when integrated with resources from a variety of stakeholders, including federal agencies.

Recognizing this federal role in water conservation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced nearly $800 million in funding through its Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for 115 locally-led solutions to regional conservation challenges. This effort will take $370 million in federal funds and match it with $400 million in funds committed by project partners. Many of these projects will be led by sportsmen’s organizations working together with local farmers and ranchers to protect our working landscapes and fish and wildlife habitat.

The Verde River in Arizona. Image courtesy of the National Wild and Scenic River System.

Take, for instance, the Verde River Flow and Habitat Restoration Initiative led by TRCP partner The Nature Conservancy (TNC). With $2.8 million in support from RCPP, The Nature Conservancy and five other partners in the Verde River Valley of Arizona will improve irrigation water management and irrigation water delivery on 1,000 acres of working lands, enhance 6,000 acres of riparian habitat, and protect 400 acres of agricultural lands through conservation easements over five years. Easements will be focused on lands that already have significant investment in on-farm conservation practices and are critical to ensure long-term investments are protected. TNC has been working in the Verde Valley for three years already to improve water conveyance infrastructure; now, their efforts will be supercharged with a greater on-farm focus.

As another example, the Colorado River Water Conservation District, along with 31 partners, is receiving $8 million from RCPP to modernize water management for agricultural uses in the Lower Gunnison River Basin. Many local efforts are underway already to improve conveyance and delivery of water as well as improve on-farm irrigation practices. With this grant, project participants will be able to integrate limited, disparate efforts under a coordinated leadership team, including local producers, to achieve greater water efficiency results and multiply environmental benefits. In addition, the partners will target areas with high selenium levels to reduce pollutant levels in the basin, producing water quality as well as water quantity benefits. This project will accelerate progress towards water users’ common goal: utilizing water resources wisely while ensuring healthy fish and wildlife populations and agricultural sustainability.

Both of these examples are localized so it may not be obvious why this new federal effort is so important to anyone outside the chosen project areas. But there are at least two reasons why we all should take note of this new conservation program. First, though the most direct benefits of river and habitat improvements will be felt in the project areas, these benefits accrue downstream, whether it’s through more water being left in the river for fish or fewer pollutants entering the watershed. Second, this model of locally-driven solutions coupled with broad stakeholder support should set the tone for conservation in the future, and the novel solutions it will produce will be replicated nationwide. Even if your favorite hunting and fishing grounds didn’t benefit from this first round of projects selected, the lessons learned from them should be coming to a watershed near you soon.

Want more on RCPP? Check out this handy USDA infographic here.

South Dakota rancher lets the land point the way

TRCP Director of Government Relations Steve Kline reflects on his relationship with 2014 Leopold Conservation Award winner Lyle Perman of South Dakota. Read more about Lyle and the award here.

I remember the first time I met Lyle Perman.

I had been worried about recognizing him, but the worry was misplaced. His bolo tie and cowboy hat set him a world apart from the buttoned-up navy suits of downtown Washington, D.C. This was his first trip to the nation’s capital since he had visited the city with the College Republicans decades earlier. Now, the TRCP hosted his return as part of an effort to educate his South Dakota congressional delegation on the importance of conserving native prairie.

As a lobbyist, I can attest that most Hill meetings run about the same way, with little variation. But when you fly somebody like Lyle to Washington to meet with senators and representatives that he knows personally, the meetings take on an entirely different tone. First, the senator has to catch up on all the latest gossip from home, including a serious dissertation on the weather. In South Dakota, rain is still considered a blessing. Talk then turns to neighbors and church; only after a full debrief can the conversation focus on the comparatively mundane: Farm Bill conservation programs working to keep South Dakota’s essential grasslands intact.

Lyle’s farm in Lowry, SD. Image courtesy of Rock Hills Ranch.

Lyle understands that he must learn from his forebears, question the assumptions of conventional wisdom and heed the ample advice the land offers. His Rock Hills Ranch is among the last vestiges of a great American ocean of grass. Much of that epic landscape has been replaced by row crops, bit by the plow, the grass long ago turned upside down. Lyle has seen firsthand what that means for the long-term health of the place he loves, the place where he raised his family. A lifetime spent in the prairies has convinced him grass is what God intended to be here.

After showing Lyle Washington, D.C., I was thrilled just a few months later that he could show me Lowry, South Dakota, and the place he calls home. Two worlds connected by a Farm Bill and a friendship. I am thrilled that my friend Lyle and his family ranch have received this award, where two new generations (and two sets of twins!) roam the countryside and plan for the future of their grass.

The 2014 Leopold Conservation Award could not go to a  more deserving recipient. A tip of the cowboy hat from all of us here at the TRCP.

Private Lands Primer: A SAFE place for wildlife

Just before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly announced an additional 86,000 SAFE acres across seven states: Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. These acres are a boon to private landowners and sportsmen. But I’d wager that most hunters and anglers, and probably many farmers and ranchers, don’t know what SAFE is or just how beneficial the program can be.

Image courtesy of Katie McKalip.

For the unfamiliar, SAFE— State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement —is part of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The general CRP asks landowners to voluntarily conserve large tracts of previously cropped land to achieve a wide range of environmental benefits. As a part of CRP, SAFE is also a voluntary land conservation program, but here USDA works with landowners, state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations and the public to identify strategic projects that conserve land in specific parts of the country. SAFE distinctively focuses on habitat for species that are threatened or endangered, have suffered significant population declines or are considered to be socially or economically valuable.

That last phrase, “socially or economically valuable,” is key for sportsmen. SAFE authorizes your local decision makers to identify which acres will best target the needs of “high-value” wildlife, and that includes for hunting and fishing. SAFE projects have provided habitat for the plains sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, American woodcock, northern bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasant, a wide variety of waterfowl, cottontail rabbits, black bears, mule deer, elk, salmon, steelhead trout and many other species, across 36 states and in Puerto Rico. That’s nothing to shake a tail at.

Landowners can benefit from SAFE too especially at a time when crop prices are low and land prices are high. USDA offers a signing incentive of $100 per acre to landowners who convert idle cropland into SAFE; pays landowners up to 90 percent of the cost of planting trees, forbs and grasses that benefit wildlife; and provides guaranteed rental payments on that land for the length of a contract, usually for 10 to 15 years. SAFE can improve farm income while incentivizing on-the-ground practices that benefit our favorite critters on an ecosystem-wide scale.

Image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although the extra 86,000 acres comprise only a fraction of the 24 million acres enrolled in CRP, at the TRCP we were thrilled by USDA’s announcement. Since SAFE’s introduction in 2007, many states have maxed out their allotted acres and maintain waiting lists for landowners hoping to enroll stream buffers, restored wetlands, newly seeded grasslands and longleaf pine stands in the program. The TRCP welcomes any additional chances to provide habitat for fish and wildlife and access for sportsmen.

Landowners can enroll qualified acres in a designated wildlife project in their state at any time. We especially encourage those in the seven states listed above to take advantage of this new opportunity. For more information, visit www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation or visit a local USDA office.

Call on Congress to Support Strong Conservation Policy in the New Farm Bill

Right now, members of a Congressional conference committee are debating the fate of the 2013 Farm Bill.  The Farm Bill has a huge influence on our nation’s conservation funding and policy.

Please join thousands of other conservationists, farmers and ranchers, scientists, hunters and anglers, and concerned citizens and call your Representative and Senators TODAY!

All Senators and Representatives need to hear from you, but members of the conference committee are especially important.  Please call conferees at the numbers below, and reach all other members of Congress through the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121.

When you call, ask to speak to or leave a message for the staff member who works on agriculture issues, and then use the following as a guide:

Hello, my name is __________, and I’m calling today from (city) to ask Representative / Senator __________ to support a five-year Farm Bill in 2013 with strong conservation measures.

Specifically, I urge Representative / Senator __________ to support:

  • re-linking basic conservation compliance safeguards to crop insurance premium assistance and to oppose weakening of our current soil and wetland protections; and
  • a national Sodsaver program to protect our nation’s remaining prairies; and
  • no additional funding cuts to Farm Bill conservation programs.

I also strongly urge the Senator / Congress(wo)man to convey his/her support for these conservation priorities to the Farm Bill Conference Committee leadership as soon as possible.

Thank you for considering my views.

Use the numbers below to contact members of the conference committee.

Title

Name

State

Washington, DC Office

District Office

Representative Roby, Martha

AL

202-225-2901

334-277-9113

Representative Rogers, Michael D.

AL

202-225-3261

 256-236-5655
Representative Crawford, Rick

AR

202-225-4076

 870-203-0540
Senator Boozman, John N.

AR

202-224-4843

 501-372-7153
Representative Denham, Jeffrey John

CA

202-225-4540

 209-579-5458
Representative Costa, Jim

CA

202-225-3341

 559-495-1620
Representative Negrete McLeod, Gloria

CA

202-225-6161

 909-626-2054
Representative Royce, Edward R.

CA

202-225-4111

 714-255-0101
Senator Bennet, Michael

CO

202-224-5852

 303-455-7600
Representative Southerland, Steve

FL

202-225-5235

850-561-3979
Representative Scott, Austin

GA

202-225-6531

 229-396-5175
Senator Chambliss, Saxby

GA

202-224-3521

 770-763-9090
Representative King, Steven A.

IA

202-225-4426

 515-232-2885
Senator Harkin, Tom

IA

202-224-3254

 515-284-4574
Representative Davis, Rodney

IL

202-225-2371

 217-403-4690
Senator Roberts, Pat

KS

202-224-4774

316-263-0416
Representative McGovern, James P.

MA

202-225-6101

 508-831-7356
Representative Camp, Dave

MI

202-225-3561

 231-876-9205
Representative Levin, Sander M.

MI

202-225-4961

 586-498-7122
Senator Stabenow, Debbie

MI

202-224-4822

 616-975-0052
Representative Walz, Timothy J.

MN

202-225-2472

 507-388-2149
Representative Peterson, Collin C.

MN

202-225-2165

 218-253-4356
Senator Klobuchar, Amy

MN

202-224-3244

 612-727-5220
Senator Cochran, Thad

MS

202-224-5054

 601-965-4459
Senator Baucus, Max

MT

202-224-2651

 406-586-6104
Representative McIntyre, Mike

NC

202-225-2731

 910-862-1437
Senator Hoeven, John

ND

202-224-2551

 701-250-4618
Representative Engel, Eliot L.

NY

202-225-2464

914-699-4100
Representative Fudge, Marcia L.

OH

202-225-7032

 216-522-4900
Senator Brown, Sherrod

OH

202-224-2315

 216-522-7272
Representative Lucas, Frank D.

OK

202-225-5565

 405-373-1958
Representative Schrader, Kurt

OR

202-225-5711

 503-588-9100
Representative Thompson, Glenn

PA

202-225-5121

 814-353-0215
Representative Marino, Thomas

PA

202-225-3731

 570-322-3961
Representative Noem, Kristi

SD

202-225-2801

 605-275-2868
Representative Johnson, Sam

TX

202-225-4201

 469-304-0382
Representative Conaway, K. Michael

TX

202-225-3605

 432-687-2390
Representative Neugebauer, Robert

TX

202-225-4005

 325-675-9779
Representative Vela, Filemon

TX

202-225-9901

 956-544-8352
Senator Leahy, Patrick J.

VT

202-224-4242

 802-863-2525
Representative DelBene, Suzan

WA

202-225-6311

 425-485-0085

Additional background:

  • Conservation compliance is one of our nation’s most successful conservation policies.  For nearly 30 years, farmers have agreed to conserve fragile soils and maintain wetlands in exchange for taxpayer support of the farm safety net.  Conservation compliance has reduced erosion by about 295 million tons of soil per year and has protected millions of acres of wetlands.  Re-connecting conservation compliance measures now to federal crop insurance will ensure decades of conservation gains are not lost.
  • America’s remaining grasslands provide important habitat for wildlife and are a critical resource for ranching communities.  Several studies have shown, however, that various federal programs are incentivizing conversion of grassland to cropland, despite the fact that much of this land is marginal for crop production.  A national Sodsaver program would reduce these incentives and save taxpayers’ dollars, while still leaving management decisions to the landowner.