Readers of this column know that AFT played a major role in the 2014 Farm Bill. Our work helped to safeguard the largest federal investment in private lands conservation.
Mandatory Conservation Funding
The Farm Bill eliminated nearly a dozen conservation programs and reduced mandatory funding by $6 billion, a major cut. Despite these reductions, conservation spending is under attack this year from multiple fronts:
*The President’s FY 2016 budget request proposes more than $354 million in cuts to the Farm Bill Conservation Title.
*Congress appears likely to impose additional cuts through an arcane process called budget reconciliation. Reconciliation would force the Agriculture Committees to make immediate cuts including conservation spending.
*Possible reconciliation could come on top of the annual cuts in mandatory programs the Appropriations Committees have made over the past several years.
*On top of all of this, sequestration could also make additional substantial cuts (at least 7.3% to certain conservation programs).
The Farm Bill provides financial and technical assistance to farmers and farmland owners to partially offset the cost to install conservation practices needed to improve air and water quality, restore soil health, and safeguard wildlife habitat and other natural resources. The Farm Bill also provides matching funds to land trusts and state and local governments to protect productive farmland in perpetuity and helps protect the long term sustainability of the land.
Without the consistent funding provided by the Farm Bill, farmers and ranchers may not be able to implement common sense conservation practices. Working lands programs — such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) — are the first line of defense in preparing for extreme weather events, avoiding the need for across-the-board environmental regulations, and protecting the viability of agricultural lands.
Thanks to your support, AFT has been working diligently, educating members of Congress and the key committees. We will continue to work towards the goal of consistent conservation spending.
Discretionary Conservation Funding
Discretionary conservation funding includes the basic conservation technical assistance provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It provides for the “boots on the ground” for conservation planning and technical assistance. The FY 2016 budget proposes $831 million for conservation operations, a cut of about $15 million from FY 2015. AFT will also work to support NRCS technical assistance funding.
The interim final rule for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) was published on February 27th in the Federal Register with a 60 day period for public comments. The rule lays out how NRCS will implement the ACE program following the provisions included in the 2014 Farm Bill.
ACEP consolidates provisions from three former NRCS easement programs: the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and the Wetlands Reserve Program.
This is an important rule for farmland protection partners seeking improved processes for carrying out Agricultural Land Easements. NRCS has stated that the interim rule provides increased flexibility for eligible entities, especially those that are certified for carrying out the program. AFT is now reviewing the rule in considerable detail and will share our views with partners in the next week or so. Please look for additional updates in the near future.