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Easement Programs Fare Well in Proposal to Super-committee, Ag Approps Enacted

Advocates Alert: November 20, 2011

11/22/11 UPDATE: The super-committee process has collapsed, leaving this promising Farm Bill proposal without a clear path to passage. The Agriculture committees are now seeking alternative vehicles and at the very least this draft provides a good starting point for the discussions ahead. See our November 22 alert for more details on the super-committee's failure.

Agricultural Land Easements Funding Protected

As of Friday night, leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees appeared to have agreed to a Farm Bill proposal for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. The overall proposal cuts $23 billion dollars over the next ten years, including $13 billion from commodity programs. Many conservation programs took big cuts, totaling $6.3 billion, but the easement programs used most by land trusts fared well.

The committee recommendation draft we saw late Friday would create a new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program that includes both a consolidated Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) and Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and a reconfigured Wetland Reserve Program (WRP).

Agricultural Land Easements, which will consolidate FRPP and GRP, will get 40% of the funding, and will consist entirely of permanent easements.  A separate Wetland Easements Program will have 60% of the funding.  This is very similar to the ratio of FRPP and GRP funding to WRP funding under the last farm bill.  There are many other details to come, and we will keep you informed as soon as we learn more.

What happened to the shorter term rentals that were in GRP?  Ranchers with unplowed ground will become eligible for enrolling their land (up to 1.5 million acres of it) in CRP for ten year rentals. The rental rates will be somewhat lower than for traditional CRP contracts.

In Friday's draft legislative text, funding for Agricultural Land Easements over the next five years (FY 2013-17) would be roughly equivalent to the actual funding for perpetual easements under FRPP and GRP over the past five years (FY 2008-12).* Keeping these funding levels would be a huge victory for the easement programs, avoiding major cuts that CSP, CRP and EQIP are slated to take.

The proposal also creates a new Regional Conservation Partnership Program that consolidates several existing initiatives including the Great Lakes Basin, Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Red River of the North Watershed, Ogallala Aquifer, Puget Sound and the Everglades. These "Critical Conservation Areas" would share in $1 billion over the next 10 years.

Some interest groups, including some conservationists, are deriding this package as a "secret farm bill." This has been a very unusual process, driven by tight deadlines and tight budget restrictions.  But the Alliance was invited to give input, and we found the staffs of all of the negotiators -- Senators Stabenow (D-MI) and Roberts (R-KS) and Reps. Lucas (R-OK) and Peterson (D-MN) -- open to our input.

This proposal is far from a done deal.  As of this morning, the final details were not yet released. The first hurdle comes on Monday evening, the super-committee's deadline for releasing its legislation. They could reject the negotiated deal in favor of more cuts, or their negotiations could collapse entirely. If they do produce a deficit reduction bill with this language intact, it will still need a majority vote in both chambers of Congress.

Please call your Senators and Representative Monday morning (especially super-committee members) at 202-224-3121. Ask to speak with the staff member who covers Agriculture issues and urge them to support the Farm Bill proposal to the super-committee -- it appears to be a good deal for our conservation work.

Please watch for an update from us on Monday!

FY 2012 Agriculture Appropriations Enacted with Smaller GRP Cut

On Friday morning, President Obama signed H.R. 2112 into law, finalizing funding levels for the last year of the 2008 Farm Bill. The good news is that the final bill uses the better House language for the Grassland Reserve Program: a cap of 209,000 acres, which implies roughly $87 million in funding, compared to $67 million in the Senate. Both chambers were already in agreement on the Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program, so it's no surprise that the final bill caps it at a disappointing $150 million -- a $25 million cut from last year, and $50 million below the level prescribed in the Farm Bill. The bill cuts roughly $927 million from farm bill conservation programs overall -- click here for a complete chart.

This year, the Ag bill was packaged with funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), including the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP), which was cut in half to just $5 million, far below recent years.

Thanks for helping!

* This calculation of level funding takes into account cuts to FRPP and GRP in this year's appropriations bills and only includes the 60% of GRP funding dedicated to perpetual easements (vs. the 40% dedicated to short term rental contracts). Those schooled in the dark arts of Farm Bill budget projections will recognize that this amounts to less than the $1 billion FY 20013-17 FRPP baseline established in the 2008 Farm Bill, but given the context we consider it a win. It should also be noted that funding takes a dive in FY 2017, leaving us with a tough battle in the next farm bill, but that's many years away and we'll achieve a great deal in the meantime.

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