Testimony – Conservation Title of the Farm Bill

This testimony is respectfully submitted on behalf of the National Governors Association (NGA) for inclusion as part of the record of the June 9, 2001 hearing before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development, and Research on the subject of conservation issues to be addressed in the 2002 Farm Bill.

The National Governors Association was formed in 1908 as a direct result of the National Conservation Conference of our nation’s Governors convened by President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt identified the need for a national policy for stewardship of our natural resources, and understood the importance the Governors played in implementing that strategy. Since then, NGA has continued to promote the need for genuine stewardship and conservation of our nation’s resources.

The two highest priorities for this Farm Bill must be the pursuit of a healthy, prosperous farm economy and protection of our nation’s natural resources. Farm support programs should foster a rural America that furthers our nation’s conservation goals and protects family farmers and ranchers.

Conservation Programs

The environmentally oriented conservation programs operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been of significant value to farmers, rural communities, wildlife, and the environment. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) continues to provide farmers with an alternative to production on environmentally sensitive lands. NGA wholeheartedly supports CRP, and believes the benefits justify continued funding at least at current levels. Also, by enabling states to supplement federal CRP dollars, through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, states have been able to protect distinctive characteristics and unique lands.

Unfortunately, many states are still waiting for approval of enhancement programs they have submitted to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Congress must work to streamline the approval process for state-submitted enhancement programs. These are extremely valuable and effective tools used to combat urban sprawl and protect sensitive areas and need to be expedited by the Secretary of Agriculture. Every minute that these programs are not approved, soil is lost, water quality continues to degrade, and critical environmental areas remain unprotected.

The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is another important conservation program. It ensures that wetlands will be restored or protected from development or agricultural production through perpetual or 30-year easements. Perpetual easements are by far the most popular choice among landowners with 78 percent of agreements falling in this category. In all cases, landowners retain title of the land and control access and use in accordance with easement provisions. This popular and important program can and should be continued in the next Farm Bill.

Programs like these provide significant value to our nation by protecting environmentally sensitive lands and preserving open space. However, there are still important steps that need to be taken.

Working Lands Conservation

Our next national challenge in conservation and environmental policy is improving conservation practices on lands producing food, fiber, and other agricultural commodities. We need to provide greater incentives for landowners to employ best conservation practices on all of their lands – including working lands.

Farmers, by the nature of their work, are close to the land and deserve their reputation as the “first conservationists.” However, with prices low and many family farms at a financial precipice, the government must help farmers implement practices that require funds and technical assistance. The need to ensure genuine stewardship of the nation’s natural resources poses one of the most significant challenges and opportunities facing agriculture today. We must work in partnership with private landowners to preserve and protect our national assets for future generations, while maximizing their lands’ productivity today.

New policy must build a national understanding of the importance of private lands conservation. The general public benefits when landowners employ good conservation practices. These “conservation commodities” include improved air and water quality for downstream communities, enhanced wildlife habitat for fishers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts, and preserved rural landscapes. Resource stewardship is the responsibility of all, and state and federal programs must help landowners by spreading the costs of conservation to all who benefit. Environmental benefits are valuable, and farmers should be compensated for producing these valuable commodities the same way they are paid to produce fruits, vegetables, grains, trees, and livestock.

State-Federal Partnerships

The 1996 Farm Bill required development of the State Technical Committee, which is responsible for providing recommendations to USDA on conservation programs. This committee consists of representatives from state and federal natural resource agencies and agricultural and environmental organizations. We believe the committee has improved coordination among local, state, and federal programs, including USDA programs. The State Technical Committees should be continued, while at the same time finding new ways to utilize their technical expertise to address a state’s specific areas of need.

The diverse nature of America’s agricultural lands makes a one-size-fits-all approach to conservation impractical. A conservation program should be developed that allows Governors – through partnerships with USDA and state governments – to target priority lands within their state. Under such a program, Governors would be allowed to set priorities that address the unique issues and characteristics of a region that must be considered if a landowner is to be sufficiently empowered to produce the most environmental benefits, while continuing to utilize his or her assets.

The strengthening of state-federal partnerships is critical to implementing efficient and effective conservation programs. As President Roosevelt realized almost one hundred years ago, the Governors are the key to effectively implementing a national conservation program. States are uniquely situated to provide the leadership needed to implement a simple, flexible conservation strategy that enables farmers and ranchers to develop a holistic farm resource management plan. The Governors believe we must strengthen the states’ role in the planning for – and allocation of – federal resources conservation dollars. States are responsible for achieving a wide variety of environmental protection goals, yet state officials are often not included in decisions affecting their state’s economies and environment. Congress must afford states greater flexibility and an increased role in the allocation of federal monies funding to accommodate state priorities.

This only can be done by adequately investing in conservation programs. Current funding levels for conservation programs do not come close to addressing our environmental needs. While the current farm economy makes it difficult to expect a producer to invest scarce resources in non-revenue generating projects, increased federal conservation dollars will help both the environmental needs of our nation and the economic needs of our farmers.

Inadequate funding for federal conservation programs has prevented thousands of farmers and ranchers from receiving technical and financial assistance so that they might address pressing environmental challenges. During every CRP enrollment period, applications to enroll acres have exceeded those that USDA can accept by millions of acres. For every landowner who has sold a conservation easement, another six are waiting for the same opportunity. In addition, more than 2,700 landowners have offered to enroll more than 560,000 acres of wetlands into the Wetlands Reserve Program, but have not been accepted. Three-out-of-four farmers and ranchers seeking federal assistance to restore lost wetlands are rejected due to inadequate funding or program caps. Yet, many of the lost wetlands being offered by farmers and ranchers are in places where scientists have concluded wetlands restoration is among the most cost-effective solutions to many environmental problems.

Governors recognize that Congress must set priorities and ponder return on investment. Increasing funding for conservation programs will improve the farm economy and protect our nation’s natural resources while providing the greatest return on the investment.

Confined Animal Feeding Operations

The National Governors Association also is concerned about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) regulations. NGA is a strong proponent of controlling run-off from non-point sources to improve water quality. While we believe that the federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program has an important role to play, several of the changes to the current regulation proposed by EPA could potentially have a significant financial impact on states and operators of these facilities.

Many states already have nutrient management and permitting programs to address animal feeding operations. The current authority for states to develop these programs should not be preempted, nor should the federal government add conflicting requirements to state programs. A state functionally equivalent program, which allows a state to design a program that is best suited to its water quality needs, must be recognized as an appropriate alternative to the federal NPDES permit program.

CAFO/AFO operations could benefit from a Governor’s ability to target conservation money by providing the incentives and means to attain and maintain federal water quality standards. Farmers and ranchers who participate in such voluntary programs should be entitled to the certainty that if they implement measures consistent with the state program, they will be protected from program revisions or additional costly requirements for a reasonable period.

Again, with an increased federal-state partnership, we can make great strides toward improving our nation’s environment, while improving the farm economy. Maintaining the current federal conservation programs, and strengthening federal-state partnerships that enable states to enhance and expand conservation efforts, will contribute greatly to the pursuit of our national conservation goals, support farm income, and expand rural economies. Agriculture is a vital component of the economies of many of our states, and we are eager to be more active partners in agriculture policy, both in designing strategies and in implementing programs.

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments for the record.