Although it’s known as the 2008 Farm Bill, the legislation that is slowly grinding its way through Congress has as much to do about conservation as farming. For a hunter, this piece of legislation and the conservation measures within are as important as any law affecting hunting, wildlife or even firearms today. Anglers also have a major stake in this legislation.
Past Farm Bills have injected billions of dollars into fish and wildlife habitat conservation programs throughout the country, and hunters and anglers have directly benefited. Pheasants have flourished, prairie chickens are slowly making a comeback in areas under conservation practices, and trout are returning to waters protected by streamside buffers.
While some government watchdog groups decry the Farm Bill and its conservation funding as needless pork, virtually every leading conservation organization, including Ducks Unlimited, Quail Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the National Wild Turkey Federation, supports the bill. So do countless regional and local conservation groups. Most Americans agree. According to a report by the Wildlife Society, 75 percent of Americans believe farmers should use one or more conservation measures in exchange for federal support. The same report said for every dollar invested in conservation programs, five dollars are returned to the local economy.
To date, over 40 million acres of critical wildlife habitat and 170,000 miles of streams have been conserved, and 1.2 billion tons of topsoil have been prevented from eroding annually as a result of conservation measures included in past Farm Bills. They have also helped restore thousands of acres of native sea grasses and coastal marshes, which benefit salt water anglers and the fish and wildlife that depend on them.
The conservation measures essentially pay farmers and other landowners to take marginal or surplus cropland out of rotation and place it into wildlife habitat. In many cases, farmers, trying to squeeze as many crops onto their land as possible, will plow and plant as close as they can to fence lines, wetlands and other wildlife habitat. While that may help their bottom line, it’s a death sentence for wildlife. Habitat loss is the most important issue facing wildlife today.
The various programs within the Farm Bill pay farmers to leave those areas alone and in some cases, to plant beneficial grasses, shrubs and trees instead. As a result, ducks have more nesting cover around more wetlands thanks to the Wetlands Reserve Program, pheasants have millions of acres of grassland as a result of the Conservation Reserve Program, and fish have cleaner water thanks to the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program.
It’s not just large-scale farming operations that benefit. Several Farm Bill conservation programs include incentives for small landowners such as cost sharing for expenses related to habitat work. The bill also helps pay the salaries for federal resource managers who consult directly with landowners and help guide them through the best conservation practices for their land. While small landowner programs don’t always benefit hunters, they do help create better wildlife habitat. There are far more small landowners than large landowners.
The bill also includes up to $20 million per year for an initiative known as Open Fields, legislation that will help state and federal agencies create more and better access to hunting and fishing areas. Numerous states in the west have private land lease programs that have opened millions of acres to hunting, but most have hit financial roadblocks that prevent addition more acreage. Open Fields will increase hunting opportunities and ultimately inject additional money from hunters into rural economies.
So what should you do? Contact your Congressman and tell him to vote for the Farm Bill. Not only will you have better hunting as a result, we’ll have cleaner air and water and more wildlife of all kinds.
For more information on the Farm Bill, visit http://www.trcp.org/ch_farmbill.aspx.