Analyst in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy
Agricultural conservation has been a public policy issue for more than 60 years. Congress has repeatedly taken action on the issue through water and soil legislation, often as part of omnibus farm bills. Early policy decisions were directed at addressing natural resource concerns on the farm, primarily reducing high levels of soil erosion and providing water to agriculture in quantities and quality that enhanced farm production. In more recent years, conservation policy has shifted to concerns about the off-farm impacts of agricultural activities.
The latest farm bill, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-246), reauthorized most existing conservation programs, modified several programs, and created a few new programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) conservation efforts have centered on implementing these conservation programs through working land conservation practices, retiring land from production or establishing conservation easements, and providing technical assistance. Program implementation controversies could lead to congressional oversight or action, especially given the recent financial statement audit reports on conservation program payments at USDA.
Other emerging issues in the 111th Congress could have a significant impact on agricultural conservation. The climate change debate and use of ecosystem services markets has brought conservation to the forefront of discussion on the role of agriculture in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Also, the effect of ethanol production on natural resources and changes in land use is an ongoing concern in the area of biofuels policy. Other environmental issues for agriculture such as concentrated animal feeding operation regulations, greenhouse gas emission reporting for livestock producers, and wetlands mitigation could lead to expanded opportunities and challenges for many conservation efforts.
Appropriations and budget issues continue to influence conservation programs and policy. Conservation programs with mandatory funding have been routinely reduced through annual appropriation bills. In FY2009 and FY2010, the reductions were limited to a handful of programs, with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) receiving the largest reductions, including $270 million in FY2009 and FY2010. The watershed programs have experienced an increase in congressionally directed projects through appropriations, with Watershed and Flood Prevention Operations being 97% earmarked in FY2009 and 74% in FY2010. The ongoing issue of funding for conservation technical assistance in mandatory programs will likely be raised again due to an expiring authority.
Other issues of potential interest in the 111th Congress include implementation of conservation program payment and income limitations, use of the Conservation Effects Assessment Project, and recent financial audits and conservation contract administration concerns.
Date of Report: September 21, 2010
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R40692
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