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The Planet

Sustainable Farms, Wetlands At Risk

The Planet, December 1995, Volume 2, number 9

by Amy Wilson

Environmentalists are decrying congressional leaders' three-pronged attack on the successful conservation programs of the 1985 Farm Bill.

First, the GOP has quietly rolled deep funding cuts for the Farm Bill's conservation programs into the giant budget reconciliation package that President Clinton is slated to consider later this year. At press time, environmentalists were urging Clinton to veto the bill.

What's more, two reauthorization proposals -- one in the House, one in the Senate -- would devastate key conservation provisions of the law, said Robert Warrick, chair of the Sierra Club's Agriculture Committee and a family farmer from Nebraska.

In the Senate, S. 1373 -- introduced by Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) -- would dramatically weaken Swampbuster, a program that pays farmers to protect wetlands rather than drain and farm them, said Warrick.

In the House, H.R. 2542 -- introduced by Republican Reps. Pat Roberts (Kan.) and Wayne Allard (Colo.) -- would eliminate the Swampbuster program entirely. In addition, farmers would no longer be paid to permanently protect restored wetlands, as they are now under the Wetland Reserve Program. The compliance program, which requires farmers to use conservation practices to reduce erosion, would become "self-certifying" -- that is, there would no longer be a federal review process to determine whether farmers fulfill its requirements. Most damaging of all, said Warrick, the Natural Resource Conservation Service that administers these programs would be merged into the Farm Service Agency, which is not obligated to implement them.

"These programs have strong support from the farming community," said Warrick. "There is no mandate from anyone to gut them. Yet the Republican majority seems determined to do just that."

Sierra Club activists and staff fought for years to add sustainable agriculture measures to the 1985 Farm Bill. Their goal was to get the government to rethink how it subsidized agriculture, in order to benefit the environment as well as the farmer.

As a result of the conservation programs, farmers have restored nearly 300,000 acres of wetlands and placed them under permanent protection. More than 30 million acres of former agricultural lands have been restored to grasslands or forest, and polluted runoff from fields has been reduced. But funding is so limited for the programs that many farmers who want to participate have been forced onto a waiting list.

"The 1985 Farm Bill made the link between conservation and subsidies," said Pamela Goddard, the Sierra Club's associate environmental quality representative in Washington, D.C. "Instead of just giving farmers taxpayer money to grow or not grow certain crops, it pays farmers to be good stewards of the land. It would be a giant step backward to allow farmers to receive millions of taxpayer dollars without asking for good land management in return."

To take action: Contact your representative, senators and President Clinton urging them to fight for a reauthorized farm bill that continues all the conservation programs included in the 1985 Farm Bill and provides adequate funding to allow all interested farmers to participate.

For more information: Contact Robert Warrick at (402) 634-2361 or Pamela Goddard at (202) 675-7907.

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