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Conservation gets a boost: Inside the new farm bill

In South Dakota, where agriculture is the king of the economy and the ring-necked pheasant is the king of the outdoor scene, the Farm Bill has a deep effect on people's lives.

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In South Dakota, where agriculture is the king of the economy and the ring-necked pheasant is the king of the outdoor scene, the Farm Bill has a deep effect on people's lives.

Pheasants are creatures of grasslands and farmlands. What happens in the Farm Bill is perhaps the biggest factor impacting birds on the landscape. Pheasants Forever worked hard in Washington, D.C. for Farm Bill provisions that would give agricultural producers good voluntary options for investing in soil health, water quality, sustainable production ... and upland wildlife.

Things were looking iffy toward the end of the year, but 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.

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 South Dakota. Key provisions include:

• A 27-million-acre Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is an increase of 3 million acres nationwide. Each state's allocation remains to be set, but there should be good availability for South Dakota producers who wish to put land into CRP. This is good for soil and water quality ... and good for pheasants, which is also good for South Dakota's economy.

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• An expanded Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program (VPA-HIP) that provides for habitat improvement on, and public hunting access to, private lands. South Dakota's vast public land base, including walk-in lands leased for public access, bring hunters into the state ... people who in turn spend millions of dollars on gas, hotels, food, shotgun shells, entertainment, and everything else surrounding a hunting adventure.

• Long-term funding for wetland, grassland and agricultural easements as earnest upland habitat improvements. Pheasants Forever continues to see high landowner demand for such programs. Most farmers want to take care of the land because it's the right thing to do, and it's the right thing for productivity and profitability long-term. Options for taking marginal lands out of production, but getting some return on those acres, are always in demand.

These were all programs that Pheasants Forever volunteers and staff pressed on Capitol Hill for many months to include in the final legislation. In case you're wondering what-all was included in the bill, here are some important details on the legislation's key conservation provisions.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

The 2018 Farm Bill increases CRP acreage from 24 million acres to 27 million acres. It calls for routinely scheduled signups with targeted state-to-state allocations, as well as prioritize 30 percent 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-sensitive and lower quality farmland.

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 such as South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks 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.

Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)

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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 program also protects grazing uses and related conservation values by conserving grassland, including rangeland, pastureland and shrubland.

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.

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. South Dakota will be a key beneficiary here. Since this is a new program, the final details on how implementation will take place are not yet refined.

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.

Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)

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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.

Sodsaver and conservation compliance

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

Pheasants Forever is committed to a working landscape for productive, profitable agriculture, as well as voluntary options for landowners to take marginal lands out of production for improving soil and water quality while giving upland wildlife a home.

While Pheasants Forever feels the 2018 Farm Bill could have been more robust for landowners interested in conservation practices on their land, in general the results are positive and a "win" for farmers, for wildlife, and for all South Dakotans.

If you are interested in learning more about any of the programs mentioned, visit your county's USDA Service Center and reach out to a Pheasants Forever Farm Bill Biologist.

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