The Farm Bill is federal legislation that funds a variety of U.S. food and agriculture policies. It began in 1933 when Congress passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act in response to the Dust Bowl. The Food Security Act of 1985 was the first Farm Bill to include a conservation title, providing financial incentives to agricultural producers through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).Today, the Farm Bill is the largest source of funding for conservation on private lands, with nearly $28 billion in the 2014 Farm Bill.
In Washington, the Farm Bill delivers many benefits to fish and wildlife, including:
- Protecting and developing shrubsteppe habitat for sage grouse and mule deer.
- Establishing and improving riparian buffers along salmon streams.
- Correcting fish passage barriers.
- Improving water quality and forest health.
- Creating conservation easements to protect wetlands and agricultural lands from development.
These conservation efforts can also enhance hunting and fishing access opportunities, particularly on private lands.
The Conservation Title of the Farm Bill contains multiple programs, often grouped into four categories: Working Lands Programs, the CRP, Easement Programs, and Partnership Programs. Farm Bill conservation programs are voluntary and incentive-based, with technical and financial assistance serving as the primary incentives. Farm Bill funding is often an integral part of partnerships that bring together producers, non-governmental organizations, local, state, and federal agencies, tribes, and others.
The Farm Bill is also a key part of Washington's Voluntary Stewardship Program, which relies on voluntary actions by agricultural producers to protect environmentally sensitive areas such as wetlands and fish and wildlife habitat. The Farm Bill provides the incentives necessary to maintain this non-regulatory approach to environmental stewardship, and losing those incentives could put agricultural producers at risk of regulatory actions.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) offers the following recommendations for the 2018 Farm Bill to maintain and enhance conservation efforts in the state, benefitting fish and wildlife, farmers, ranchers, small forest landowners, tribal partners, hunters, anglers, and others. Among those requests:
- Reauthorize the Conservation Reserve Program, the largest private lands conservation program in the U.S. Increase the national acreage cap to 40 million acres by the end of the next Farm bill, and increase the annual rental payment cap of $50,000, which was established in 1985 and hasn't increased since.
- Reauthorize the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, which encourages landowners to open their land to public recreation, at no less than $150 million over five years.
- Emphasize and increase the availability of long-term incentive payments and contracts under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, designed to empower farmers, ranchers, small forest landowners, tribes and others to improve natural resources on agricultural and non-industrial private forest lands.
- Restore funding to a minimum of $500 million per year for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, with an increase to at least $750 million over the life of the Farm Bill. This program protects and enhances both agricultural lands and wetlands, including habitats for threatened and endangered species.
- Support reauthorization and maintain funding levels for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). In Washington alone, this program has awarded $48.5 million to 10 projects, working on efforts ranging from salmon recovery and water quality improvement in Whatcom County to fish and wildlife habitat restoration in the Yakima Basin. WDFW is the lead agency for an RCPP project called the Southwest Washington Small Forest Lands Conservation Partnership; a web app is available to provide information and help forest landowners contact local conservation district and Department of Natural Resources staff for technical assistance.
- Reauthorize the Healthy Forests Reserve Program, which helps protect and restore forest resources on private lands to aid the recovery of threatened and endangered species, with mandatory annual funding of $12 million.
- Increase financial and technical capacity for prescribed burns on private lands to improve and enhance wildlife habitat.
These are just a few examples of how the Farm Bill contributes to the continued conservation of Washington's fish and wildlife. Learn more with this comprehensive list of WDFW's Farm Bill priorities.
WDFW has a team of private lands wildlife biologists who can provide assistance with Farm Bill-funded wildlife conservation projects on private lands. If you are interested in learning more, please contact your local private lands wildlife biologist or your local U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center.