While the Farm Bill is often primarily associated with protecting America’s agricultural interests, few acknowledge that it is the single largest source of funding for conservation initiatives on private land. The portion of the bill’s budget set aside for conservation projects serves an essential role in preserving America’s biodiversity, as half of all endangered species listed in the Endangered Species Act have 80% of their habitat in private lands (Fish and Wildlife Service: 2009). Thus, the funds for conservation provided under the bill go a long way in protecting America’s biodiversity.
The types of conversation projects funded under the bill vary extensively, but they include programs that address general resource use, waste management, or are specifically targeted towards protecting certain species. The wide variety of interventions available give farmers the flexibility to choose which program they believe is most suitable for their needs. For example, farmers with no desire to permanently set aside land can opt to participate in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, an initiative which enables them to continue farming their whole property whilst improving environmental quality standards. Alternatively, farmers with marginal land that they want to take out of production can receive incentives through land retirement programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) (Congressional Research Service: 2017).
The breath of programs funded through the Farm Bill is just one of the many reasons why over 500,000 farmers have adopted these conservation programs on their lands (Department of Agriculture: N.D.). The benefits directly related to these programs are multifold. For example, over 23 million acres in the lower 48 states have been designated for land retirement through the CRP (Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership: 2017). If we focus on the Midwest, conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill have prevented 44 billion pounds of sediments from entering waterways, thus improving the region’s water quality. Moreover, wildlife tourism in the region has flourished, with an increase in wildlife habitat on land set aside for conservation purposes. The tourism industry alone brings in $430 million annually for the region. In all, it is estimated that the Midwest has benefited from $1 billion worth of ecological services directly stemming from conservation programs funded through the Farm Bill (North American Bird Conservation Initiative: 2017).
Even though there are a multitude of benefits associated with these conservation programs, recent versions of the bill have decreased their budget. In the current version of the bill, passed in 2014, conservation projects were allocated $58 billion or roughly 6% of the total budget. From the previous bill, this marked a reduction of around $4 billion and accounted for 24% of the total budget cut (Congressional Research Service: 2017). The Trump administration, following up on its campaign promise to cut federal spending, has proposed to further reduce funding to these conservation projects by threefold — about $13 billion (Department of Agriculture: 2018).
Such a large cut to the budget of conservation programs will not only put these already strained resources under greater pressure, it will also increase barriers to entry for farmers looking to enroll in the programs. For example, a decrease in funding could force programs to cut their outreach budget, which will decrease farmers’ knowledge of incentives available to them and affect program enrollment numbers. Less funds will also cause programs to become more selective in who they award grants to, which might deter farmers from wanting to participate in the programs if they know the chances of receiving grants are low (Reimer and Prokopy: 2013). Thus, any decrease in funding to the already strained programs will only further dampen the significant progress conservation has made on private lands.
One of the main obstacles that the Trump administration will face trying to get its proposal through Congress will be the fact that conservation programs funded under the Farm Bill have strong bipartisan support. This collaboration across party lines is nowhere more evident than in the recent introduction of a bipartisan bill which aims to strengthen conservation programs funded by the 2014 version of the Farm Bill (Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry: 2017). Hopefully, strong opposition to weakening the conservation programs in the Farm Bill will help defeat the Trump administration’s goal of significantly cutting resources to these programs. Putting more strain on these already underfunded programs will only have negative consequences for conservation in our country.
Map Source: Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership: 2017