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Watchdog Group, Dean Slam Congress For Proposed Conservation Cuts

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mitchell Daily Republic, Seth Tupper

Published September 10, 2008

An environmental watchdog group and a South Dakota outdoorsman slammed Congress Tuesday for proposing legislation that would purportedly slash millions from conservation programs in the recently adopted farm bill.

Craig Cox, Midwest vice president for the Environmental Working Group, issued a report detailing $331 million in conservation funding that he said would be cut by an appropriations bill proposed in the Senate. The cuts equate to 8 percent of the conservation funding that Cox said was mandated by the farm bill, which Congress approved in May.

Cox was joined on a Tuesday morning media conference call by Tony Dean, a Pierre-based host of outdoors-themed radio and television shows. Dean, who endorsed Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota in the past, called the Democrat-led Congress’ effort to cut conservation funding “disgusting.”

“I’m a fisherman, I’m a hunter and I vote,” Dean said, “and frankly, when I look at these cuts, I’m outraged.”

Dean said farmers already are taking land out of conservation practices and putting it into agricultural production because of economic factors including high commodity prices, congressional support for ethanol and the availability of government crop subsidies. Cuts to conservation funding could exacerbate the trend, Dean said, leading to fewer natural habitat areas for game animals like South Dakota’s abundant pheasants.

“The end result is our farmers are going to plant fence-row to fence-row to take advantage of subsidies in a strong market because they’re businessmen,” Dean said. “Conservation funding is needed more than ever before.”

Cox, meanwhile, said he’s upset about the “bait-and-switch” method congressional leaders used to propose the cuts. Proponents of farm-bill reform were offered strong conservation funding as a carrot, Cox said, after Congress failed to cut agricultural subsidies for the wealthiest landowners. Now, he said, it appears those earlier promises about conservation programs were “hollow.”

Furthermore, Cox said, the technique of promising conservation funding in the farm bill and then cutting it later in an appropriations bill is not new. The only difference now, he said, is that it’s the Democrats doing it instead of Republicans.

“Conservation leadership simply must step in and reverse these proposed cuts to conservation,” Cox said. “There is still time to get that done this year.”

Cox’s report identified five programs that would receive less from the Senate appropriations bill for fiscal year 2009 than was mandated by the 2008 farm bill:

- The Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP), which was pledged funding of $1.337 billion but would receive a 21 percent cut to $1.052 billion. Cox’s report called EQIP “the centerpiece of the nation’s effort to help producers conserve soil, improve water quality, and enhance wildlife habitat on their working farms and ranches.”

- The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) was pledged $85 million but would receive a 13 percent cut to $74 million.

- The Grazingland Reserve Program (GRP) was pledged $63 million but would receive a 15 percent cut to $48 million.

- Agricultural Management Assistance (AMA) was pledged $15 million but would receive a 33 percent cut to $10 million.

- The Farmland and Ranchland Protection Program was pledged $121 million but would receive a 12 percent cut to $106 million.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune, a Republican, echoed Cox’s and Dean’s criticism of the Democratic leadership’s role in the proposed cuts.

“As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which was responsible for writing the 2008 farm bill, I worked with my colleagues to make a record investment in our conservation programs,” Thune said in a written statement. “… Just weeks ago we made a commitment to our producers that these programs will be supported over the life of the farm bill. It is unfortunate that the Democratically controlled Senate Appropriations Committee has decided to break that commitment.”

Thune is not a member of the Appropriations Committee, but Sen. Johnson, a Democrat, is. Johnson said somewhat prophetically in a May news release about the farm bill’s passage that “federal programs are only as good as the funding put behind them.”

Johnson’s spokeswoman, Julianne Fisher, said Tuesday that Johnson supports the conservation programs in the farm bill and will work with Appropriations Chairman Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to make sure the programs are fully funded.

Fisher said the appropriations bill that contains the conservation funding likely will not be acted upon until after the Nov. 4 general election.