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Guest editorial: Keep Farm Bill conservation component strong

June 05, 2013 at 03:56 PM

The Nature Conservancy

A Farm Bill featuring strong conservation programs just passed the Agriculture Committees of both the Senate and House of Representatives with bipartisan majorities. Many may not realize that the Farm Bill contains the most significant conservation programs intended to protect our country’s natural resources on privately owned lands. The passage of this bill offers huge benefits not just for agriculture, but for wildlife, local residents and our economy as a whole right here in Illinois.

It provides incentives to farmers, ranchers and other private landowners that result in cleaner water, improved soil conservation, enhanced wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities, increased flood control and stronger local communities and rural economies.

All of those environmental benefits add up quickly when you take into account that there are 76,000 farms and 28 million acres of farmland in the Prairie State. When landowners elect to take advantage of these incentives, they fight soil erosion, water contamination and habitat loss on nearly 80 percent of the land in Illinois, all of which is privately owned.
Farm Bill programs support the work The Nature Conservancy does in places like our Emiquon Preserve and in the Mackinaw River watershed. In addition to providing high-quality habitat for fish and wildlife, restoring and conserving the natural floodplains at Emiquon helps mitigate the type of flooding we saw this April, reducing the amount of private and public funds spent on flood clean up. On the Mackinaw, we’re using wetlands restoration to naturally clean agricultural run-off from the drinking water for the people of Bloomington, all for less than it would cost to construct a water treatment facility.

Farmers and wildlife aren’t the only ones who benefit from the environmental incentives this bill promotes. Recreation and tourism dollars are major economic drivers in Illinois. Hunters and anglers generate $2.1 billion and 22,000 jobs. Over 2.5 million people enjoy watching wildlife, spending $1.1 billion annually. In this way, more conservation on private land adds up to more jobs and more chances to strengthen our local economies.

One of the key components of the Senate version of this bill—which we hope to see maintained—is that it couples crop insurance with conservation compliance. The benefits of this provision are two-fold: it provides farmers with a safety net that protects them from the economic damages of drought, flood, or other disasters. It also ensures that conservation compliance rules, which discourage the draining of wetlands, converting native grasslands to crops and farming highly erodible lands without a conservation plan, are enforced. It is our hope that this provision gets included in the House version of the bill as it gets debated in the next couple of weeks.

Our Senators and Representatives from Illinois will soon have an opportunity to vote on the Farm Bill. When that happens, I hope they will ensure that further cuts to critical conservation programs in the bill do not happen.

Michelle Carr State Director The Nature Conservancy in Illinois

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