Conservation Easements and the Anti-Farm Farm Bill, by Dana J. Gattuso

The September 30th deadline has come and gone, and Congress has not passed a new farm bill. And while farm special interests bemoan that Congress fiddled while Rome burns, the outcome is actually good for American taxpayers who would have funded a bloated, subsidy-stuffed trillion dollar farm bill. Even the Washington Post noted in a recent editorial that “[n]o farm bill at all might be better than a bad bill.”

But it’s too soon to start celebrating. Congress is facing pressure from the powerful farm lobby to pass the bill. At issue are not only costly crop insurance and food stamp programs but also massive conservation programs, including “conservation easements.” These are largely anti-farm production programs, restricting land use on private farmland to support wetlands, grasslands, and non-threatened species while doing precious little to grow the nation’s crop supply and stabilize rising food prices.

The Wetlands Reserve Program, which transfers land rights from private to government control, is the largest of these USDA-run conservation easement projects. Specifically, it retires farmland in order to “restore, protect, and enhance” wetlands and wildlife. An estimated two million acres of cropland are encumbered under the program.

It raises the question: With our nation’s farms suffering from one of the harshest droughts in half a century and crop damage threatening to push up food prices to record levels, why is Congress proposing to spend hundreds of millions of additional tax dollars to convert farms to wetlands when the land could be used to grow crops?

The program’s approach to take land out of production stems from early federal land retirement programs intended at the time, ironically, to control falling crop prices. Back in the 1930s, lawmakers removed land from farming as a means of reducing production supply and supporting food prices. Conservation purposes were secondary. But today the pendulum has swung so far toward protecting everything from wetlands, to dry lands, to even non-endangered species that the impact these policies have on falling food production and rising prices is not even considered.

Worse, most of the land under easement is encumbered permanently. That means there is little wiggle room to adjust for severe conditions such as the summer’s drought.

The Wetlands Reserve program was considered controversial in its early years due to concerns over its threat to private property rights. Congress slashed the program in the early 1990s and refused to authorize any funding.

Not so today. The 2008 farm bill, which expired September 30, authorized 3 million acres for enrollment, up from 2 million in the previous farm bill. President Obama’s 2012 budget requests $785 million, almost double the amount authorized for 2011.

But unless Congress passes the new farm bill, the wetland program’s days may be numbered since the program does not have budget baseline protection. This means it receives no future funding unless costs are offset by cutting other programs in the farm bill.

That would change under the new farm bill. Thanks to the efforts of an entrenched land trust lobby, the wetlands easement program would be combined with two other USDA-run easement programs — the Grasslands Reserve and the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection programs — to become one enormous operation called the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The program would move to baseline budgeting, meaning its funding would be permanently protected.

Moreover, the baseline budget would triple for the newly created Agricultural Conservation Easement Program to a whopping $2.2 billion for the next five years. That’s in spite of the nation’s record federal budget deficit.

The land trust special interests are seeking the change because they know these programs will face an uphill funding battle in light of our growing fiscal pressures. According to a 2011 report by the American Farmland Trust, “Continuing these programs at current rates of spending would cost an additional $674 million annually in the next farm bill — additional money that will not be forthcoming.” So land trusts pushed Congress in the new bill to secure the program with permanent funding by shifting it under one enormous easement program.

Already the USDA controls over 7 million acres of private farmland and forests under easement — a region larger than the states of Vermont and Rhode Island combined. That’s land that could be used to grow crops and bring down rising food prices.

Let’s hope that during the lame-duck session, Congress addresses the problem of escalating food prices and ballooning budgets, and puts the “farm” back in the farm bill.

Dana J. Gattuso is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.