Why do American sportsmen have a stake in a sprawling piece of federal legislation governing nutrition standards and commodity prices?
The answer is clear. That legislation, the Farm Bill, also plays a central role in upholding public access opportunities and sustaining key fish and wildlife habitat across the country.
Farm Bill measures like the Conservation Reserve Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program and Wetlands Reserve Program have made millions of acres on America’s farms and ranches more attractive to fish and wildlife. Sportsmen in particular have seen firsthand the increases in the numbers of game species and other wildlife since the inception of these programs.
Right now, Congress is in the midst of deliberating the future of the periodically renewed legislation. The Senate has formulated a new version of the bill, co-written by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Ranking Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas. Stabenow describes the Senate bill as “the most significant reform in agriculture policy in decades.”
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives is engaged in developing its own version of the bill. Congressional leaders and sportsmen alike are pushing for farm conservation programs to be adequately supported and sustained in the 2012 bill – and that the new Farm Bill be finalized before the year’s end.
Without question, these are trying times for private lands conservation. Federal and state incentive funding is very tight, high commodity prices are encouraging more farmers to take lands out of conservation, and the energy boom is turning open spaces into drilling pads and wind farms. Yet overall the Senate Farm Bill manages to maintain a strong conservation title, although many of the program names have changed and funds have been reallocated. By strengthening programs and eliminating redundancies, the bill makes the conservation title more efficient and user friendly.
In spite of some across-the-board cuts, several programs in the Senate bill represent definitive victories for sportsmen. Chief among them are the Senate’s adoption of a “sodsaver” provision, which discourages farmers from converting wildlife habitat into row crops. Sodsaver presents Congress with a rare opportunity to save taxpayer money, protect an iconic American landscape and preserve the ability of farmers and ranchers to manage their lands as they see fit.
The Senate bill also reauthorizes the so-called Open Fields program, which incentivizes private landowners to open their lands and waters to public access, including hunting and fishing access. Many union sportsmen, led by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, have been strong supporters of Open Fields.
“More than 3.2 million AFL-CIO union members spend some of their well-deserved free time hunting and fishing, and their ability to access lands and waters is central in sustaining those activities,” said Trumka, a TRCP board member. “Union sportsmen have a deep appreciation for our outdoor traditions, and continued funding for public access programs such as Open Fields helps safeguard the future of these traditions.”
In all, the new Farm Bill would save taxpayers more than $20 billion over the next five years and ensure that conservation remains a key part of our federal farm policy. With the bill’s conservation programs critical to the more than $95 billion in economic activity annually contributed by hunting and angling, now is the time for our elected leaders to work together toward swift passage of this critical piece of legislation. The TRCP and its sportsmen partners remain committed to assuring a new Farm Bill that secures access opportunities for hunters and anglers and upholds America’s cherished private lands sporting traditions.
Article provided by Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Visit www.trcp.org to learn more about the TRCP.