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Bill would restore conservation funds

The House has passed a bill authored by Sens. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that promises to restore funding taken from one set of 2002 farm bill conservation programs and diverted to another.

The bill, passed by the Senate in October, now goes to President Bush for his signature. When it becomes law, the legislation will return about $100 million a year to agricultural conservation incentive programs, according to its proponents.

“The funding we worked so hard to include in the farm bill for conservation practices was being redirected to other conservation programs by USDA officials in Washington,” said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla. “They were robbing Peter to pay Paul, and the landowners who use these cost-share programs were losing out as a result.”

Lucas, chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee that oversees conservation programs, said the bill prevents conservation funds from being spent on other projects by requiring that funds set aside for working lands conservation efforts can be spent only on those programs.

The Senate bill, S-2856, that passed the House Dec. 6 was nearly identical to legislation authored by Lucas earlier this year. Cochran and Harkin are the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Since the current farm bill was enacted in May 2002, USDA has diverted more than $200 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Farmland and Ranchland Protection Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program to pay for technical assistance for the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program.

The Senate bill insures that funding for CRP and WRP technical assistance comes from the Commodity Credit Corp., not from working lands conservation programs, according to proponents of the legislation.

“I had hoped that we could have resolved this problem with USDA officials, but our efforts there were unsuccessful,” Lucas said. “This language will correct a problem we've been working on since USDA began implementing the 2002 farm bill.”

Language in the 2002 farm bill addressed the funding for technical assistance, which USDA field staff and conservation district employees provide to landowners to help them plan and implement soil and water conservation practices. But contradictory language on the issue has since been passed in two appropriations bills, as a result of differing legal opinions from the General Accounting Office and the Department of Justice.

During the debate on the 2002 farm bill, Lucas pushed the Agriculture Committee to fully fund EQIP, and introduced a bill to provide adequate funding for the program, which was previously funded at $174 million per year. Lucas was successful in his efforts to provide additional EQIP funding, as the farm bill includes $9 billion for EQIP over the next 10 years.

Conservation groups praised Lucas and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, ranking member Charles Stenholm and others for their efforts to pass the legislation.

“We are delighted with House passage of the Senate bill that will restore about $100 million a year to key conservation incentive programs,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which sent letters to House members urging them to pass the bill.

“We also commend Sens. Cochran, Harkin, and Herb Kohl, D-Wis., for their three-year effort to overturn misguided administrative rulings. The 2002 legislative change to mandatory Commodity Credit Corp. funding for technical assistance on all farm bill conservation programs was first proposed to Congress by the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. We are happy to see this issue settled at long last.”


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