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Demand Already Exceeds Funding for Conservation Program That Could Suffer Cuts

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mitchell Daily Republic, Seth Tupper

Published September 12, 2008

Hundreds of South Dakotans already are being turned away from a conservation program that could see a pledged funding increase rescinded by Congress and the president.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) provided $16.997 million in federal government funding to 369 South Dakota applicants in fiscal year 2007. The funds were distributed as cost-sharing to help farmers and ranchers institute better environmental practices, such as feedlot waste systems that protect waterways, water systems that draw livestock away from eroded stream banks and terraces that reduce cropland runoff.

In addition to the 369 South Dakota applications that received funding in fiscal year 2007, another 360 applications were rejected.

Denise Gauer, a resource conservationist with the state office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Huron, said most rejections were caused by a lack of funding. The 360 rejected projects would have required additional funding of $16.582 million from the federal government.

“With additional funds, we could do more,” Gauer said Wednesday. “Most definitely.”

When the 2008 farm bill was passed by Congress in May, it appeared more funds for EQIP and other conservation programs were on the way.

The farm bill, however, merely authorized — or “mandated,” depending on one’s interpretation — the funding for the conservation programs. The job of appropriating the money falls to members of each congressional chamber’s appropriations committees.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has proposed scaling back the total conservation funding in the farm bill by $331 million, or 8 percent, for fiscal year 2009. The brunt of the cuts would fall on EQIP, which would see its pledged farm bill funding cut by $285 million.

Tuesday, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group issued a report detailing the proposed cuts and slamming the Democrat-led Congress for proposing them. The group said Wednesday that, assuming states receive the same percentage of total EQIP funding as they did in 2007, South Dakota will receive $5 million less in EQIP funding for 2009 than was pledged in the 2008 farm bill.

Joining the Environmental Working Group on a Tuesday morning conference call with reporters was South Dakota’s Tony Dean, who hosts outdoors-themed radio and television shows. Dean, of Pierre, said he found it “disgusting” that Democrats were working behind the scenes to cut conservation funding.

Wednesday, Dean retracted some of his criticism of Democrats. He said he’d talked with additional sources in Washington, including South Dakota Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson, who told him that President Bush’s proposed cuts went much deeper.

“He was essentially wiping out most of the programs,” Dean said Wednesday of Bush, a Republican. “The Democrats’ cuts, while they were cuts, are still substantial increases over what the president called for.”

Dean reiterated his concern, though, about the cuts and their potential impact on natural resources in South Dakota. Many conservation programs provide habitat for animals such as pheasants, around which a lucrative hunting industry has developed. This year’s pheasant season begins Oct. 18.

“I’m concerned about these conservation programs,” Dean said, “because pheasant hunting is pretty important to Pierre and Mitchell and all the towns in between.”

Dean said Tuesday that high commodity prices, large crop subsidies and the growing demand for ethanol already are motivating farmers to remove land from conservation practices and put it into production agriculture. Dean said that trend will worsen if funding for conservation programs remains so short that hundreds of applicants in South Dakota — and thousands nationally — are turned away.

“I’m delighted that many farmers want to do it right,” Dean said Tuesday, “but I’m extremely upset that these cuts are going to make it difficult for those farmers who want to do the right thing to do it.”

In addition to EQIP, four other conservation programs would see their farm bill funding levels cut by the proposed Senate legislation:

• The Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), which provides cost sharing to establish wildlife habitat and provided $462,108 to South Dakotans in fiscal year 2007;

• The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, which utilizes easements to protect agricultural land from development and provided $162,111 to South Dakotans in fiscal year 2007;

• The Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), which utilizes agreements with landowners to prevent grasslands from being converted to cropland and provided $1,711 to South Dakotans in fiscal year 2007;

• And Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA), which is not available in South Dakota.

Compared to the amounts in the 2008 farm bill, nationwide 2009 federal funding for WHIP would be cut by 13 percent, Farm and Ranch Lands Protection funding would be cut by 12 percent, GRP funding would be cut by 24 percent and AMA funding would be cut by 33 percent.

The Environmental Working Group reported Tuesday that the proposed new cuts would exacerbate funding shortages caused by similar cuts in the past. Between 2003 and 2007, for example, appropriations for EQIP fell short of their 2002 farm bill authorization by a reported $692 million.

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