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Situation on conservation title fluid, to say the least

The Conservation Security Program, Sen. Tom Harkin's hard-luck brainchild that seemed headed for an even more uncertain future in the new farm bill, may get new life, after all.

The ink was barely dry on the current law when the CSP, which Harkin squeezed into the 2002 farm bill conference report, began running into problems at USDA and then in Congress.

Instead of rewarding farmers for stewardship as Harkin intended, USDA launched it as a pilot program tied to mediation in a handful of watersheds. Congress later tapped the program to pay for disaster programs.

The House Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Energy and Research appeared to be set to deal the CSP its most serious blow when it considered its chairman's mark for the farm bill's conservation title.

Draft language the subcommittee approved would delay future signups for the CSP until 2012 and transfer $1.1 billion from the program to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., seemed to be backtracking, however, when he held his weekly press briefing May 24. He said the full committee might restore some CSP funding.

“I met with our leadership (the day following the CCER subcommittee vote), and they seem committed to providing more funding for the agriculture baseline,” he said. “If some of subcommittee members had known that then, they might have voted differently.”

Peterson still has concerns about the Conservation Security Program, which he criticized extensively during an earlier briefing. “Our idea is we should use our resources to help people deal with government regulations, and that's what EQIP does. “CSP was designed to reward farmers and landowners for things they're already doing. I'm not sure we want to start another entitlement program for landowners because they own land.”

The chairman said the environmental community “likes what we have done,” although Environmental Defense and American Farmland Trust complained the subcommittee's did not contain enough funding.

Later, Harkin listed a series of changes he would like to see when the Senate ag committee writes its conservation title. Among those would be a Comprehensive Stewardship Incentives Program that would combine, streamline and improve the current CSP, EQIP and WHIP.

The CSIP program would allow farmers to submit one application for any or all of the conservation programs and provide unitary funding rather than “forcing us to rob one program to pay for another.”

The plan would also increase enrollment in the Wetlands Reserve Program to 250,000 acres each year, eliminate the overall cap on enrollment in the program and expand the continuous enrollment component of the Conservation Reserve Program.

Harkin said he would also include legislation developed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called “sodsaver” to eliminate incentives for plowing and planting on virgin rangeland by making it ineligible for commodity programs.

The farm bill may be as changeable as the weather. If you don't like what you see, just wait a while.

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