EDITORIAL: Farm bill yields big results for conservation

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Following three years of political jousting, the Agricultural Act of 2014, commonly referred to as the farm bill, finally passed through the House and Senate and was signed by President Obama Feb. 7.

And while this important omnibus bill certainly has flaws in some areas, we think it has merit in its preservation and strengthening of several key conservation programs, especially as it pertains to keeping Perry County’s water, soil and forests healthy.

We’re fortunate to have farming, hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation opportunities that hold both economic and ecological value and we believe the conservation programs and provisions within the bill will help protect our industries and assets.

While the nearly $1 trillion dollar bill, the majority of which is earmarked for nutrition programs, consolidated many conservation programs – from 20 to 13, it may go far to save money and streamline efficiency, especially during the enrollment process. For example, the Wetlands Preserve Program, Forest Preserve Program and Grassland Reserve Program are now condensed into one program – the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

A new Sodsaver program will protect valuable acres within the prairie pothole region of the U.S. by denying subsidies to farmers who convert previously untilled land to row crops, thereby encouraging the preservation of important wetlands. A final amendment within the bill limited this program to just six Midwestern states that contain the majority of these sensitive acres.

The Conservation Reserve Program, which has proved beneficial for several species, including important game animals like white-tailed deer and ground-nesting birds such as pheasants and ducks, will, on the down side, take a hit and see a $6 billion loss of funding as well as a decrease of allowable acreage into the program – the new cap is 24 million acres versus 32 million in the 2008 bill over the next several years.

But on the upside, new provisions give landowners a stronger incentive to enroll in the program, allowing for early opt-outs and emergency grazing and haying of CRP ground without a penalty. The bill also requires farmers to implement and comply with basic soil and wetlands protections to qualify for federal crop insurance subsidies in an effort to reduce erosion and protect millions of acres of ecologically important wetlands.

Director of Indiana Department of Agriculture Ted McKinney highlighted several key aspects of the bill, including “the safety net for Indiana farmers impacted by adverse events like flooding” and “enhanced conservation security and stewardship programs that aid water-quality and soil-conservation programs.”

Locally, the Hoosier National Forest will benefit most notably by the reauthorization of stewardship contracting, a program that allows the forest to trade good for services. An amendment to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, passed in 2003 in response to a large fire outbreak in 2002, will allow Hoosier officials to act more quickly in the event of declining forest health due to disease or insect infestations.

The most immediate effects will be seen with the reauthorization of stewardship contracts. “The authority actually expired at the end of 2013, so we are glad it was renewed and is now permanently authorized,” said Judi Perez, planning and public affairs officer for the Hoosier National Forest. “Instead of having a timber sale and having most of the receipts from the sale being returned to the U.S. Treasury, those funds can be used locally in a quick fashion. (It) is a win-win all the way around. There are many things that we can get accomplished using this tool with only the money spent to put the timber up for sale. There are a lot of possibilities,” she said.

The amendment to the Healthy Forest Restoration Act will allow the governor to ask the Forest Service to designate treatment areas where forest health is declining due to insects and disease. It also provides an accelerated analysis process when creating fuel breaks for fire safety. “Generally, the analysis process can take six months or more. The accelerated process has the same level of analysis and resource protection, but can be done much more quickly,” Perez said.

The bill also contains additional funding to tackle these insect and disease infestations and raised the area considered in the process to 3,000 acres. “The Hoosier would most likely never treat an area that size or have an infestation that large,” said Perez, “but with emerald ash borer already on parts of the forest, long-horned Asian beetle and thousand canker disease close by, these are tools and funds that we would have access to if we needed it.”

We support the strengthening and inclusion of these conservation programs that collectively support our farmers by reducing their risk and offering incentive for sound farming practices and work to protect our water and soil for future generations. We applaud conservation-minded programs that move us toward a more sustainable and responsible use of our natural resources.

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