Over 100 organizations deliver letter opposing cuts to conservation

On Thursday, September 17, more than 100 organizations from around the country delivered a letter urging the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to “protect mandatory funding for farm bill conservation programs, support robust discretionary funding for Conservation Technical Assistance, and reject any attempt to undermine highly erodible land and wetland conservation compliance” in fiscal year (FY) 2016 appropriations legislation. A broad range of groups joined NSAC to send the letter, including the National Farmers Union, National Wildlife Federation, Kansas Rural Center, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, League of Women Voters, and many others.

Congressional appropriators are currently negotiating final appropriations legislation for FY 2016. In previous years, appropriators have used a back-door budget gimmick called “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending” (CHIMPS) to cut farm bill direct spending, which is under the jurisdiction of the Agriculture Committees, not the Appropriations Committees. For example, the FY 2015 Appropriations Act cut the 2014 Farm Bill’s funding for conservation by over $650 million.

In June and July, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees passed FY 2016 agriculture appropriations bills that cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the farm bill Conservation Title, on top of the dramatic reduction in conservation spending already made by the 2014 Farm Bill and sequestration. The proposed FY 2016 cuts would further reduce conservation enrollments by millions of acres and hamper efforts by farmers, ranchers, and foresters to conserve water, maintain their soil, and prepare for extreme weather events.

In addition to opposing cuts to mandatory spending for conservation programs, the letter urges appropriators to adopt the Senate funding level of $855 million for discretionary Conservation Operations, which includes Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA). USDA’s ability to deliver conservation programs to farmers and ranchers depends heavily on on-the-ground technical assistance. “We must not hamstring our investment in conservation by under-funding technical assistance,” the letter states.

Finally, the letter urges congressional negotiators to reject a controversial policy rider included in the House bill. The rider would delay by one year the implementation of basic soil and water conservation requirements established by the 2014 Farm Bill. When the rider was initially added to the House bill last spring, there was concern that a significant number of producers had missed a June 1 deadline to self-certify compliance with conservation requirements. In the months that followed, USDA took extraordinary steps to address the problem by working with each and every one of the two percent of producers who did not file their self-certification forms on time. In most cases, USDA found that forms were not filed because the producer on record was no longer farming. Among the tiny fraction of active operations that did not initially self-certify, nearly every one has now done so, securing eligibility for taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium assistance.

“We believe that the concerns that prompted the policy rider have been addressed administratively and do not require any legislative action,” the letter states.

Read our previous blog post for more information on the state of appropriations as we approach the end of the fiscal year.