USDA Deputy Secretary Chuck Connor told wildlife groups the Administration's proposals for the 2007 Farm Bill's Conservation Title will be in the hands of Congress sometime "next week."
Connor, speaking to the Growing Conservation in the Farm Bill summit at the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation in Dundee, Ill., said the Administration's proposals for conservation provisions are closely aligned with the recommendations made by the large coalition of wildlife and conservation groups in the form of the Agricultural and Wildlife Working Group. The group was formed and facilitated by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
Connor said the Administration is asking for $7.8 billion in additional conservation funding from mandated spending coffers, a situation, he says is likely to cause "hard choices" in the financially-strapped federal budget this year.
"There's a battle ahead of us," Connor explained. "The House and Senate have not provided any extra funds, so ag spending will be in competition with Medicare, Education and Housing. We understand this to be a current sum game, but we've made the choices to pursue increases in conservation as one of our priorities." Connor also explained the Administration's plan is to bankroll farm bill spending out of mandated spending monies, so once the bill is passed, it takes effect – without having to go back to Congress for funding approval.
Overall, the Bush Conservation Title to the Farm Bill includes a new water reclamation and conservation provision in the Environmental Quality Incentive Program which would help landowners meet the needs of fish and other riparian wildlife.
"Also, we want to change the Conservation Security Program to strike paying for practices already in effect, in order to fund new conservation activities on farms and ranches," he explained, noting the CSP would get an additional $500 million under the proposed legislation.
Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Connor illustrates a point in his address to a number of wildlife groups attending a Conservation Title summit in Dundee, Ill. Tuesday. Connor says the Administration's proposed conservation legislation for the 2007 Farm Bill will be in congressional hands next week.
For the popular Conservation Reserve Program, Connor, says the Administration wants to cap CRP acres to the current 38 million acre level and to focus signups on the most "environmentally sensitive areas." "We'd also like to work with larger blocks of affected acres to benefit widlife uses." He hinted a new signup for CRP was possible in 2008.
A new twist to the Conservation Title would be a Conservation Enhancement Payment Option, the deputy explains.
"This would be an alternative form of program payment for those who wanted to do more conservation projects without payments being connected to commodity prices," he says. "Under this program, farmers and ranchers could receive up to a 10% bump in their non-price-related farm payments."
Other Administration proposals call for a million-acre increase in wetland reserve targets – up to 3.5 million acres from 2.3 million. Also, the Administration would not pay farm payments on land broken out to be planted for fuel use. "We think conservation is important enough that if a producer wants to break out new land to take advantage of the increase in commodity prices brought on by ethanol demand, then the market should take care of that production – not the taxpayer," Connor added.
When asked about a common complaint by Natural Resource and Conservation Service personnel that they're overwhelmed with increasingly complex technical assistance requests with fewer staff members, Connor pointed back to the $7.8 billion increase the Administration is seeking for conservation spending and said that figure would be passed on to managers to address the human resource problem.