Congress is in a cutting mood and wetlands are on the chopping block. Facing a bleak economy, mounting debt and a fiscally conservative political climate, Congress is taking direct aim at just about every conservation program on the books. Although the budget is far from settled, conservation programs in the 2012 Farm Bill are facing a $500 million reduction.
"Virtually every single conservation program is on the chopping block," says Steve Kline, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership's director of the Center for Agricultural Lands. "This will have brutal impacts to the gains we have made in preserving and improving vital wildlife habitat since the first Farm Bill was passed in 1985."
Although the numbers seem to change almost daily, various reports say the cuts as proposed will result in a loss of more than 64,000 acres of Wetlands Reserve Program land, as well as 96,000 acres of Grassland Reserve Program habitat. The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program would lose $35 million in funding and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program would be stripped of $350 million. The North American Wetlands Conservation Act will effectively be killed through the elimination of its $47 million appropriation.
Another vital program on the chopping block is the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, more commonly known as Open Fields. It bolsters existing state-run private land access programs by $18 million and gives states the opportunity to create additional access to high-quality private land.
A Step Backward
Delta Waterfowl senior vice-president John Devney says the proposed cuts will likely roll back most of the conservation gains of the last 25 years and will have a lasting and profound impact on waterfowl production. Although water — or the lack of it — dictates duck production, nesting cover is equally important.
"Quality nesting habitat is most critical in dry years. If we don't get much water on the nesting grounds and there is little nesting cover on top of that, there will certainly be a significant decline in duck numbers," says Devney. "We saw that happen in the 1980s before the first Farm Bill was passed (in 1985). I fear we could return to a pre-1985 landscape if these cuts go through."
Proposed cuts to conservation programs are nothing new. Virtually every time the Farm Bill and its companion conservation allocations come up for renewal, there are threats from Washington to end these and related subsidies. This time, however, the risk is far more tangible, says Kline.
"They have never been more real," he says. "Everyone I know that's been around the conservation arena for a long time is very concerned. No one has seen anything like this."
What surprises Kline and Devney the most are the depth of the cuts and the impact they will have not just on hunters, but on the economy. Conservation funding generates more money back to the federal government than it spends on these programs. All told, expenditures for various conservation programs amount to about $5 billion, or just one-eighth of one percent of the federal budget.
"This is the perfect example of penny wise, pound foolish," says Kline.
The Good News
On a positive note, the 2012 Interior appropriations budget has been shelved. It included a $38 million reduction in allocations to the national wildlife refuge system. The current budget for the 553-refuge system is $493 million, despite an estimated $3.5 billion backlog of maintenance, operation and repair projects. A report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service said as many as 140 refuges would be forced to close, many of which allow hunting. Kline warns the Interior bill could come up again, so the cuts are still possible.
Even better, the Conservation Reserve Program was left virtually intact. Devney says it's the most beneficial conservation program and accounts for an estimated 2 million additional ducks each year, according to a 2007 study conducted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the US Geological Survey. Still, there is concern that it too could be in the crosshairs.
"We may well be seeing a double whammy with Congress considering cuts to CRP at the policy level," said Devney. "Current conservation rental rates may not be competitive with surging commodity prices and corresponding increases in cash rental rates. If either occur it will significantly compromise the program that has helped sustain good populations, long seasons and liberal bag limits. If the two happen at the same time it would be a real punch to the gut to duck hunters everywhere."
What You Can Do
Congress likely won't act on the 2012 Farm Bill until toward the end of the year or possibly early next year. Or the 2008 Farm Bill may get extended by a year, effectively kicking the can down the road to avoid the political fallout that would likely result from enacting the proposed cuts. That's why Kline recommends taking action right now.
"Write letters to your congressmen, show up to town hall meetings and offer some words of encouragement about the importance of these conservation programs," he says. "Write letters to your local newspapers. Support the various groups working to defeat these cuts."
In other words, if you love ducks and duck hunting, don't sit on the sidelines.