Inside the New Farm Bill

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Quail Forever digs into key elements of the recently-passed 2018 Farm Bill, and what it all means for upland conservation

By Jim Inglis

With just days left on the 2018 congressional calendar, the Farm Bill passed the Senate and House of Representatives, and was signed by the president shortly before Christmas.

Quail Forever’s government affairs team conferenced immediately after the final details became available, digging deep into the details of the 800-page legislation. 

Despite budget constraints, the bill’s conservation title saw improved funding and an increase in acres within the major conservation areas; this will result in more on-the-ground wildlife habitat.  In particular, The Habitat Organization points to:

*A 27-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is an increase of 3 million acres

*An expansion of the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) that provides for habitat improvement on, and public hunting access to, private lands

*Long-term funding for wetland, grassland and agricultural easements as earnest upland habitat improvements

These were all initiatives that Quil Forever volunteers and staff pressed on Capitol Hill for many months to include in the final legislation. Here are more important details on the bill’s key conservation provisions.
 

CONSERVATION RESERVE PROGRAM (CRP)

The 2018 Farm Bill increases CRP acreage from 24 million acres to 27 million acres. It directs the secretary of agriculture to conduct routinely scheduled signups with targeted state-to-state allocations, as well as prioritize 30% of acres into the Continuous CRP program that targets high-value habitat and resource concerns. There were adjustments to rental rates and caps on payment levels, but we feel that the rental rates and cost-share will be competitive, especially on environmentally and lower quality farmland. 

Additional information from the Farm Services Agency (FSA) here.
https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/conservation-programs/conservation-reserve-program/index


VOLUNTARY PUBLIC ACCESS AND HABITAT INCENTIVE PROGRAM (VPA-HIP) 

The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorizes funding of $50 million for VPA-HIP. This program helps state wildlife agencies expand hunting and fishing opportunities, and access, on private lands through expanded and enhanced walk-in programs. This funding is also available to do habitat improvements on private lands open to the public. 

Additional Information from NRCS here.
 

AGRICULTURAL CONSERVATION EASEMENT PROGRAM (ACEP) 

This portion of the bill provides funding to boost ACEP funds to $2.25 billion over the next 5 years. The demand for long term (30-year) and perpetual easements has always exceeded funding. This funding level is the highest since the programs were created in 1990. The Wetlands Reserve Easement (WRE) is a similar program where wetlands are protected and restored. In addition, the Agriculture Easement Program (ALE) helps farmers and ranchers keep their land in agriculture, especially in areas of high-demand  pressures for development. The program also protects grazing uses and related conservation values by conserving grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland. 

Additional Information from NRCS here.
 

ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY INCENTIVES PROGRAM (EQIP) 

This program increases the percentage of funds for providing an estimated $200 million per year (a nearly 4-fold increase) in funding directed for wildlife.  A priority focus for wildlife-related EQIP funding is through the Working Lands for Wildlife Program; it was codified in the final language to focus efforts in priority landscapes for multiple species. This was a big win for wildlife! The program includes funding to support quail, sage grouse, lesser prairie chickens and monarch butterfly habitat. Funding for timber stand management and prescribed fire are also popular practices in this program. 

Additional Information from NRCS here.
 

SOIL HEALTH AND INCOME PROTECTION PROGRAM (SHIPP) 

This program authorizes 50,000 acres “to assist landowners with conserving and improving soil, water and wildlife resources” through 3 to 5-year contracts in the Prairie Pothole region. Since this is a new program, the final details on how implementation will take place are not yet refined. As such, we will post details when they become available.
 

REGIONAL CONSERVATION PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM (RCPP) 

This program expanded to include $1.5 billion of funding and will increase flexibility to leverage local, state and other non-federal funding sources. RCPP was created in the 2014 Farm Bill. 

Additional Information from NRCS here.


CONSERVATION STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM (CSP)

This program was reauthorized, but at a reduced funding level compared to the 2014 Bill. That said, with funding at between $700 million and $1 billion per year, there will be continued opportunities for projects to create high-quality wildlife habitat.

Additional Information from NRCS here.


SODSAVER AND CONSERVATION COMPLIANCE 

These provisions remain strong and will continue to protect native habitats that include prairie, wetland and forest lands.

Additional Information from FSA here.
https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/payment-eligibility/conservation_compliance/index 

If you are interested in signing up for any of the above programs, be sure to visit your county’s USDA Service Center, reach out to a Quail Forever Farm Bill Biologist, or discuss options with your state fish and wildlife agency private lands biologist.