Perhaps you missed it in the busy run-up to Christmas. Perhaps it just didn’t register on your radar. Maybe it was lost in worry about a then-threatened government shut-down. Even if you missed it in the news, Dec. 20, 2018, was a very important day for conservation-minded Americans. With just a few days left on the congressional calendar, a new federal farm bill was signed into law on that day. Though the Farm Bill doesn’t dictate land use, few other pieces of legislation have such a far-reaching affect on our natural resources and how vast acreages of land are used. Few will have as much impact on wildlife and water quality for at least the next five years. Money tied to the Farm Bill comes from all of us who pay taxes. Many of the issues it addresses are, or at least should be, of interest to all Americans; not just farmers.
I want to express my thanks to Pheasants Forever for passing along a summary of the 800-page Farm Bill in the “Spring 2019” edition of their Pheasants Forever Journal of Upland Conservation. PF’s government affairs team and similar teams from a broad spectrum of conservation organizations pushed hard to get the best possible conservation considerations worked into the bill. A total of $30 billion dollars will be available for conservation programs in the next five years. A few highlights in the legislation relating to soil conservation, wildlife habitat, and water quality follow.
The acreage cap on the flagship land conservation initiative, known as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), was increased three million acres to 27 million acres. It’s still well below historic highs, but is a notable step in the right direction, considering current budget restraints. CRP reflects the wise “old” saying “farm the best, and save the rest.” Iowa is blessed with a much higher percentage of “the best” farmland than almost anywhere else in the nation. It remains to be seen how much of the increase in CRP acres will actually be planted here, but perhaps we’ll see a few more areas placed in some form of permanent cover (prairie, wetlands or trees). Every new acre of native perennial vegetation will offer benefits for wildlife and help Iowa reach its water quality goals.
A sub program known as Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) increases by nearly four-fold funding for “Working Lands for Wildlife.” This may help us reach our water quality goals, too, when it develops wetlands that can capture nitrates and phosphates before they reach streams.
Three hundred million dollars per year will be made available for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP); triple the level in the 2014 bill. This title hints at an important aspect of reaching our conservation goals. No one government program, state or federal, can get us to where we want to be by itself. The federal government can’t do it without active participation from from the states, and conservation organizations like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and many more. Active participation will be required from citizens, urban and rural, who care deeply about the land and want to insure that we pass it on to future generations in a healthy condition that supports not only individual and corporate incomes, but also hunting, fishing, and all forms of outdoor recreation. The 2018 Farm Bill is almost too much to get our collective minds around, but it’s a critically important factor in addressing pressing conservation needs.
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.