Evaluating the 2008 Farm Bill

Critterthink, the blog of the Center for Native Ecosystems in Denver, CO has posted a guide to the 2008 Farm Bill from a conservation perspective, highlighting what they call the good, the bad and the ugly. If you haven't had time to review the bill yourself, take advantage of the hard work these folks put into breaking it down for us.

The Farm Bill is an omnibus bill passed every few years, setting a policy toolkit for agriculture in the US. It has massive implications for industry, food, foreign policy and, for our purposes, conservation and the environment.

Here are a few things that stuck out for me:

The new Farm Bill includes the Endangered Species Recovery Act, which will provide tax deductions for private landowners that volunteer to conserve habitat on their lands for threatened and endangered species.

An excellent idea considering many of the trouble areas are on private lands, and NGOs can be a bit intrusive. The guilt trips haven't really worked.

The Wetlands Reserve Program will be reduced by about 25% to just 185,000 acres per year.

Not good. We have already eliminated well over half of the 215 million acres of wetland in the continental US, with some states nearly destroying all of the major wetlands within their lines.

And this bit is just far out of control:

High commodity prices and federal subsidies for corn ethanol production have created intense pressure to plow under remaining native grasslands. Conversion of these lands to corn production not only destroys important imperiled habitats that are home to numerous declining species of birds and other wildlife, it also releases large quantities of carbon stored in grassland soils. A strong Sodsaver provision would have helped counteract these pressures by eliminating federal support and insurance payments on newly broken out land. Sodsaver provisions were included in both the House and Senate bills, as well as the Administration's farm bill proposal only to be taken out during Conference committee. Now producers in the prairie pothole region will be incentivized to break out their lands for fear their Governors will opt into this program. At least parts of the permanent disaster relief program will likely exacerbate the problem by guaranteeing producer income on even the most marginal of newly broken lands. Taken together with the bill's significant retrenchment of the Conservation Reserve Program, the net effect will be to add to rather than ameliorate the pressure to plow under fragile native grasslands--destroying habitat while contributing to climate change by releasing carbon stored in the soils.

Climate change is also contributing to the invasion of brush into the native grasslands of more arid climes in this country. I'm reviewing a paper on the subject and should have something up about it today.


I spent most of my life in close proximity to bogs and marshlands, so the reduction of wetland protection bothers me a great deal. They are beautiful, unique environments where it takes a sharp eye to pick out some of the most brilliant curiosities you won't find anywhere else. I had the fortune of seeing firsthand different kinds of wetlands. The eastern shore of Maryland is home to salty, coastal wetlands where stalk legged herons pick through the muck for food. On the other side of the state, in the mountains of Garrett County, there are bogs that stretch miles, weigh stations of sorts, purifying waters that flow clean off the rocky heights of waterfalls downstream. In the fall, the sphagnum turns deep red, matching the autumn treetops and blueberry bushes that surround the thick, low lying mats of moss, soaked in the muddy bog. Sarracenia purpurea grows on little hummocks, small white flowers poke through the sphagnum and in a couple of months, when everything is covered by layers of snow and ice, the skunk cabbage will still be visible, producing enough heat through its own respiration to melt the winter around it.

I don't think I have ever stepped into an environment so alien, so unique as a bog or marshland, and I hope to track down some local wetlands in Georgia. Perhaps this time I'll have some pictures to go along with the descriptions.

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I'm glad you've brought up the issue of wetlands. It's one of the (many) global issues that are being ignored and, unfortunately, it's a really important one. Loss of wetland isn't just about destroying habitat, but it also has very immediate and drastic effects for humans - such as desertification to name a major one.

Unfortunately, the few existing advocacy groups are hopelessly ineffectual. Ramsar, for example, works by getting people to make nice happy promises and there are absolutely no consequences for breaking them. And where they could legitimately have a large impact, building awareness for the issues surrounding the destruction of wetlands, they are again lacking. At best, have their little conferences (that no one outside the most die-hard activists even know about) every four years and can provide limited information packages upon request (which depends, of course, on having even heard of them, which is rare).

What I would like to see is an advocacy group that focuses primarily in getting information into schools. There's a world wetland day, for example, and I would like to see that celebrated in schools with exhibits, projects, field trips to local marshes to see the diversity of birds and bugs, and so forth. Get kids to understand the importance of wetlands and the governments will follow. But instead, most advocacy groups I've seen, focus instead on the governments - governments that might well understand the importance of wetlands, but who have their hands tied by voters who are more concerned about getting a new strip-mall built in their area.

Sorry for the rant!

By Grimalkin (not verified) on 09 Jun 2008 #permalink