Farm Bill aims for simpler, more efficient conservation programs
By Sen. Michael Bennet
In the last 18 months, I’ve held 21 listening sessions across the state from Wray to Cortez, and from Lamar to Meeker, so that I could hear directly from Coloradans who are using Farm Bill programs. I’ve also participated in private-land conservation events, including one last month in Palisade where five conservation easements were finalized.
Time and time again, I have heard about the importance of Farm Bill conservation programs as voluntary tools essential to keeping Colorado’s farms and ranches in business and to sustaining our state’s hunting and fishing economy.
These conversations and this input have been a core focus of mine as we work in the Agriculture Committee to draft a new Farm Bill. As chairman of the subcommittee on conservation, natural resources and forestry, I have pushed for a bill that maintains and improves — even in an era of budget cuts — the tools that have allowed Colorado’s private landowners to use conservation programs so effectively and to the benefit of the entire state.
This month, I also invited the chief of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, David White, the country’s head private-land conservationist, to join me in Greeley so he could hear firsthand how well these programs have worked for Colorado landowners.
The Senate Agriculture Committee is scheduled to begin debate of the Farm Bill today. During that process, we’re going to find opportunities to save money and add efficiency, including streamlining the existing slate of conservation programs.
In the end, we hope to make the conservation title simpler and more efficient overall, while maintaining all of the primary program functions.
Under the current law, there are more than 20 conservation programs. Restructuring conservation into four program areas will save taxpayer dollars and alleviate confusion.
Under the new approach, we will focus on working lands or lands currently in agricultural use, which includes the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program. They provide assistance to help producers improve their operations to save water and avoid violating federal regulations — and comply with those already on the books. The streamlined program will also help preserve and develop wildlife habitat — good news for Colorado sportsmen.
The second program area will focus on strengthening easement programs. It will help more private landowners, like the families I met with in Palisade, protect the agricultural heritage of their communities. I am working to ensure that the revised easement programs work better for western farmers and ranchers. They will include greater flexibility for landowners who must provide matching non-federal contributions when finalizing their agreements.
The third program area focuses on the Conservation Reserve Program. CRP helps maintain the integrity of Colorado’s most fragile land by providing financial incentives to help reduce soil erosion and enhance wildlife habitat.
Finally, the conservation portion will be home to a program called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. It will emphasize locally led projects aimed at improving regional soil quality, water quality, water quantity and wildlife habitat. This is built on the success we’ve had with hard-working partners, farmers and ranchers right here in Colorado and will truly be a grassroots, locally led program.
As one of the only Western voices on the Senate Agriculture Committee, I’ve made sure to emphasize to other committee members that, while water quality will always be important, it’s water quantity that we’re most concerned with in Colorado. I’ve fought to include a provision in the Farm Bill that underscores the need to help producers address vital water quantity issues.
Across the state, I’ve heard from countless Coloradans who want nothing more than to be left alone to run their farm or ranch, take care of their family and get a fair shake from the government. I thank everyone who has taken the time to share their experiences with me. Our conversations have been invaluable. And I can assure you common-sense and real-world experience has had a significant and real affect on this legislation.
Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, is one of two senators representing Colorado in Washington, D.C.