Agriculture leaders have requested that Congress provide as much as $8 billion per year for conservation programs in the new farm bill now under consideration.
"Our challenge will be to balance the costs of the successful conservation programs with the rest of the farm bill programs," said Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., who chaired the first of three hearings by the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Research, and Rural Development.
In addition to reviewing current conservation efforts, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, witnesses were asked to provide their vision for future conservation policy.
Participation in conservation programs has helped farmers to manage nutrients, save on input costs, control erosion, and improve the productivity and sustainability of their operations, witnesses said.
"It's good to hear of the successes of these programs," Lucas said. "Farmers were conserving long before it became politically correct. They've always had a vested interest in preserving the land that provides for them."
But, he said, program costs will be a major consideration as the new farm bill is developed. The Livestock Coalition, for example, said that more than $12.2 billion would be needed for their industry to meet projected 10-year costs of federal, state, and local mandatory manure management, and water/air quality protection requirements.
The Crop Coalition, citing burdens placed on farmers by Clean Water Act regulations, said a conservation/environmental incentive payment program should be implemented in order to help producers meet those costs.
Robert Stephenson, director of the Conservation and Environmental Programs Division of the USDA's Farm Service Agency, said the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been a resounding success since its authorization in 1985.
Originally set at a maximum enrollment of 40 million to 45 million acres, subsequent legislation capped that at 36.4 million.
"Allowing for enrollment acreage in the continuous signup practices and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and contracts already expired, CRP enrollment is expected total 33.9 million acres at the end of Fiscal Year 2001," Stephenson said.
Some 29.5 million acres have been enrolled under a competitive offer process, and many producers agreed to significantly enhance wildlife cover and to establish more enduring practices such as tree planting, wetlands restoration, and rare/declining native habitat restoration.
"Through mid-April, 2001, over 1.5 million acres have been enrolled under continuous signup practices that address special concerns such as re-establishment of filter strips, riparian buffers, contour grass strips, and grass waterways," Stephenson said.
Although some one-year CRP contract extensions were allowed in 2001, the FSA announced that no general signup would be scheduled this year.
Budget baseline projections indicate the maximum 36.4 million acre enrollment permitted under current legislation will be reached in fiscal 2003 — assuming re-authorization of CRP in the new farm bill. That would include 500,000 acres in the Farmable Wetlands Pilot Program.
John Lincoln, testifying on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said for a conservation incentive program to work well, "public policy must recognize the inherent limitations that command-and-control regulations have in attaining desired public benefits of an environmental nature."
He noted that "by nearly every measure, our environment and natural resources are in much better shape than at any period in our lifetimes."
But, Lincoln said, many of the environmental statues in effect today "were enacted for problems of the 1960s and 1970s, and the programs were, and continue to be, very controversial and adversarial in nature. Compliance has been expensive and inefficient, although comparatively easy to measure."
Now, he said, the public wants even more — including open spaces, wildlife habitat, scenic vistas, diverse landscapes, and recreational activities.
"These are clearly more ephemeral policy goals that require a more delicate and site-specific policy approach that, more than ever, necessitates the cooperation of the landowner."
Public policy and the conservation title, Stephenson said, "should move beyond preventing bad things" and instead should "promote good things," with "a new, more efficient, and more effective approach to assist farmers in providing the public with what it wants. It should be voluntary, provide sufficient economic incentive, and clearly define the benefits that society at large derives from agriculture."