There are few pieces of legislation that pass through congress that have such an outsized influence on conservation policy than the annual Farm Bill, and the omnibus package that was finally sent to the President early this month is no different. The bill establishes funding for a wide range of programs for the next five years, but noteworthy among them for birders are those that encourage farmers to protect wetlands on private property by requiring conservation compliance as a precondition for qualification for various federal insurance subsidies.
In short, if farmers want to qualify for federal programs, they need to protect the wetlands on their property. The benefit to grassland nesting species is obvious.
The Farm Bill also included provisions for the Sodsaver program, a wholly new initiative that limits subsidies for farming on previously unplowed grassland. Sodsaver is currently limited to 6 states (ND, SD, IA, MN, MT, and NE), but those states cover a great deal of habitat and host a number of breeding waterfowl and shorebirds, not to mention myriad other waterbirds, in the northern Great Plains. Perhaps in time, this provision can be expanded to apply to the entire region.
In addition, the bill retains a number of critical conservation incentive programs that encourage landowners to protect land that is marginal for farming by planting native grasses, conducting controlled burns, or providing cover on erodible landscapes, among other things. The programs also allow farmers and landowners to get technical assistance in making their land more friendly for wildlife.
It’s far from perfect, but it’s far better than maybe any of us had a right to expect, too. At points in the last few years it looked as if many of most successful conservation initiatives in past Farm Bills would be stripped, so it’s something of a pleasant surprise that so many of them were retained, and even strengthened. It’s a little bit of positive news in a process that seems to too often elicit frustration.