What Hunters and Anglers Need to Know About the CRP Improvement Act | Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

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New legislation could boost the acreage and impact of hunters’ favorite Farm Bill conservation program

The Conservation Reserve Program is one of the most effective and impactful Farm Bill conservation programs ever implemented, and recently introduced legislation has the potential to make it even better. Proposed by Senators Thune (R-S.D.) and Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the bipartisan Conservation Reserve Program Improvement Act would add landowner incentives that have the potential to boost CRP acreage and improve wildlife habitat and water quality, leading directly to more and better opportunities for hunters and anglers.

Unlike other important U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, the CRP did not get a recent boost in funding.

Legislation that is introduced before the massive Farm Bill, like the CRP Improvement Act, helps hunters and anglers push for the programs that mean the most to us just as debate is heating up. Here’s what you need to know about this bill.

Conservation Reserve Program Basics

Introduced as part of the 1985 Farm Bill, the CRP pays farmers to retire highly erodible farmland from production. Its original goals were to reduce soil erosion and support farm income, but it quickly became clear that the CRP was just as valuable for wildlife and fisheries as it was for farmers. By returning marginal cropland to grasslands, wetlands, and forests, the CRP created millions of acres of wildlife habitat while also filtering water, sequestering carbon, and preserving biodiversity.

Despite this success, reduced rental rates, complicated application processes, and a lack of cost share flexibility has caused some landowners to avoid applying. Conservation-minded groups have worked for years to add commonsense flexibility and improved incentives to the program in ways that don’t compromise its conservation benefits. Now, the CRP Improvement Act could make some of this happen.

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What the CRP Improvement Act Does

The new legislation continues the trend of added flexibility, targeted application, and improved outcomes in the CRP. Specifically, the CRP Improvement Act would:

  1. Reinstate cost sharing for mid-contract management. Periodic management of CRP through weed control, prescribed fire, or targeted grazing or mowing is necessary to maintain quality habitat, so landowners in CRP contracts are required to perform management activities near the midpoint of their ten- or 15-year contracts. Unfortunately, federal cost sharing for mid contract management was eliminated in the 2018 Farm Bill, leaving landowners on the hook for these costs and discouraging new enrollment. The CRP Improvement Act reinstates this cost share for all approved practices other than grazing and haying, which will lead to both more enrollment and better management and environmental outcomes.
  2. Add cost sharing for CRP grazing infrastructure. Depending on how and where it is applied, livestock grazing can be beneficial or detrimental to wildlife habitat. The grasslands of the Great Plains evolved with grazing, which supports wildlife by maintaining plant diversity there. The CRP Improvement Act provides cost sharing for grazing infrastructure, like fencing and water development, “if grazing is included in the conservation plan and addresses a resource concern.” Having fencing and water in place makes CRP lands more valuable as emergency livestock forage reserves during drought, adding an incentive to farmers and ranchers. And after grazing infrastructure is set up, landowners are less likely to convert grasslands back into cropland at the end of a CRP contract. In the long term, this seemingly small investment has the potential to support more grass-based agriculture and more diverse farming operations, benefiting both rural economies and wildlife.
  3. Permanently authorize the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancements (SAFE) initiative. SAFE enrolls acreage and encourages management practices that benefit priority wildlife in individual states. These practices are chosen by local biologists and tailored to a specific region. As an example, the states of South Dakota and Minnesota have used SAFE to prioritize enrolling tallgrass prairie acreage for pheasant habitat and water quality. In Georgia, SAFE acreage has been targeted toward native pine savannas, excellent habitat for bobwhite quail. Specific Farm Bill language that prioritizes SAFE ensures that the CRP is much more than a land retirement program and is a win for hunters and anglers nationwide.
  4. Increase the CRP rental payment limitation. Enrollment in the CRP by an individual landowner is currently capped by a $50,000 limitation for rental payments. This limitation has not changed since the original Food Security Act of 1985, and simply doesn’t reflect current farmland rental rates. By raising this limitation to $125,000—still less than if that $50,000 limit had been tied to inflation when created—the CRP Improvement Act would allow conservation-minded landowners to enroll more of their land in the CRP. This has the potential to create more contiguous habitat and remove a barrier to enrolling high-impact acreage.
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What to Watch for Next

The CRP Improvement Act is a great example of bipartisan legislation that builds on the success of Farm Bill conservation programs. It is being proposed at an excellent time, just as all parties gear up for the 2024 Farm Bill. There are a couple of things hunters and anglers should keep in mind, both in this bill and in upcoming Farm Bill discussions.

Adding flexibility, production value, and management incentives to the CRP is a great way to gain support from farmers and ranchers, but we have to ensure that it doesn’t reduce the CRP’s conservation value. For this bill to be successful, any haying, livestock grazing, or associated infrastructure needs to be well-planned and targeted toward conservation outcomes. The same must be true for future Farm Bill proposals.

Other tweaks to the CRP—like increased funding, more competitive rental rates, and a better application ranking process—are still needed. But this bill is a clear demonstration that across-the-aisle partnerships on commonsense legislation are still possible. We need to promote this kind of cooperation, and we should keep a close eye on upcoming proposals that would modify the Farm Bill conservation title—for better or worse. Hunters and anglers need to show a united front in support of quality habitat nationwide and supporting the CRP Improvement Act is a good start.

Photo by @NickMKE on Flickr.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>