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Who Will Say No to Obama's 4 Million Acres in Conservation Cuts?

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

By Craig Cox, Environmental Working Group Senior Vice-president and manager of EWG's Ames, Iowa, office.

The debilitating cuts to US Department of Agriculture conservation programs proposed in President Obama's budget will do permanent damage to America's conservation efforts. These programs are critical to conserving and protecting  our soil, water and air.  Unless backers of these vital initiatives emerge in Congress and fight these cuts, 4 million* acres that should and could be enrolled in conservation programs will fall through the cracks -- permanently.

The implications for conservation funding are alarming. Instead of just slowing the growth of protected acreage -- with hopes of catching up later when the economy and tax revenues improve -- Obama is proposing to permanently limit USDA's authority to enroll additional acres and to fund these proven conservation programs.

In other words, the President is proposing to rewrite the 2008 farm bill deal -- a deal that secured support for the subsidy-bloated 2008 farm bill allegedly in return for an increase in conservation funding.

Congress would have to rewrite the 2008 farm bill in order to make these reductions permanent. The traditional approach to slowing expenditures for conservation programs is for the Appropriations Committees to enact a short-term limitation by stipulating that “no salaries or administration expenses” can be used to protect more than X acres or to spend more than Y dollars in a given year. But Obama's budget proposal is far more radical.

A permanent reduction in conservation funding would be particularly egregious because it would not only blunt progress on reducing water pollution and soil degradation, but also hinder the fight to slow climate change. Worse, it  would reduce the long-term budget baseline for conservation programs.  If Congress accepts that reduction, it will put conservation funding in an even weaker position vis a vis farm subsidies going into the 2012 Farm Bill.

The Obama Administration began to slash conservation funding in its 2010 budget, proposing to permanently reduce the Wetlands Reserve Program by 138,000 acres -- an idea EWG did not cotton to. Now, unfortunately, the misguided notion of finding budget savings via permanent conservation cuts is infecting other critical programs.

Recent years have been the Gilded Age for production agriculture, spurred in large part by lavish, taxpayer-funded farm subsidies. And as soon as Obama proposed in his new budget to cut the programs that ensure profits for the largest growers of corn, cotton and rice, members of Congress beholden to Big Ag interests instantly stormed the podiums to denounce the cuts. This raises these questions:

Where are conservation's champions in Congress?

Who will remind members of the promises to conservation that led to a deal on the 2008 Farm Bill?

How much faith can the conservation community have in funding promises in the future?

Here's the tally of Obama's proposed cuts:

NEARLY 4 MILLION CONSERVATION ACRES PERMANENTLY LOST

Program Lost Acres
Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) 769,000
Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) 57,018
Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) 183,662
Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) 2,947,770
Total 3,957,450

- The figures for lost acres in CSP, WRP, and GRP come straight from the President’s budget documents. The lost acres for EQIP are an estimate based on EQIP data from NRCS.

Remember what's already happened to these programs. Ninety percent of the increases in conservation funding (over the 2002 Farm Bill) that were promised in 2008 came in just two programs: Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.  EQIP has been slashed every year since. As of the 2010 budget year, $740 million has been lost -- more than half of the increase promised in the 2008 Farm Bill. If the cuts proposed in the President’s new budget stand, the lost funding will total $1.2 billion -- 85 percent of the promised increase. If this trend continues, there will be no increase at all. EQIP will remain mired at the funding level it was supposed to reach in 2005 -- but never did.

Now the President is turning the budget knife on the Conservation Stewardship Program. His proposed budget would permanently cut 769,000 acres from it, slowing the promised growth of the program by 6 percent in one year.

Although the proposed budget increases conservation spending over actual 2010 spending by $62 million, or 1%, don't forget that the 2010 funding was already a big cut from the promises made in 2008. The proposed 2011 funding for EQIP -- $1.2 billion -- is the level it was supposed to reach in 2005. The program's funding is six years behind its original target. The only big increase in spending in Obama's budget proposal is for CSP, but even there it would cut 769,000 acres from the amount mandated in the 2008 Farm Bill.

* EWG arrived at the 4 million acre figure by factoring in the President’s proposal to permanently cut the number of acres to be enrolled in three conservation programs by more than 1 million acres along with cuts mandated for other key conservation programs.

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