The U.S. House of Representatives’ approval of nearly $1 billion in cuts to USDA conservation programs in the agriculture appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012 is bad policy that the Senate needs to fix, according to a leading conservation group. 

“We realize that Congress faces tough budget choices, but making draconian cuts to voluntary conservation programs that help farmers and ranchers provide all Americans with cleaner air and water, more productive soils and habitat for wildlife is penny-wise and dollar-foolish,” said Sara Hopper, agricultural policy director for Environmental Defense Fund and a former staff member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.  “The Senate needs to restore reasonable funding levels for conservation programs for the benefit of our environment and taxpayers.”

Last month, more than 50 agriculture and conservation groups sent a letter to House members urging them to “ensure that reasonable funding levels are continued” for USDA conservation programs.  “These conservation programs are crucial to the health and viability of agriculture and rural America,” said the letter signed by the 50+ agriculture and conservation groups, including Environmental Defense Fund and the National Young Farmers’ Coalition

“The demand for enrollment in these programs routinely exceeds the funds available, even without any cuts,” the groups’ letter concluded.  “Failure to support our farmers, ranchers, foresters, and natural resource base today will jeopardize our agricultural industry, drive up long term costs for environmental mitigation, and threaten our nation’s food security.”

The House-passed bill today includes large cuts to two extremely popular working lands programs that have improved soil, air, and water quality on farms and ranches across the country: the Conservation Stewardship Program ($210 million cut) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program ($350 million cut).  There often are more applications for the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program than funds available for either program. 

The bill also targets programs that protect and restore critical habitat for wildlife, promote wildlife-based recreational opportunities, and protect farmland from development.  These programs include the Grassland Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, Voluntary Public Access Program, and Farm and Ranchland Protection Program.  Farmers are waiting to enroll more than one million acres in the Wetlands Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program. 

Finally, the bill would cut the Natural Resources Conservation Service by nearly $100 million, depriving our farmers and ranchers of the technical assistance they need for effective conservation to identify and address natural resource concerns on their land.

These proposed cuts would be in addition to the $500 million already cut from USDA conservation programs in the FY2011 spending bill.