At the end of last year, both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives passed by overwhelmingly bipartisan votes one of the largest, if not the largest, environmental bills. President Trump then signed this bipartisan bill into law. The environmental bill I am referring to is the new Farm Bill. Beyond establishing national agricultural policy, the Farm Bill authorizes conservation programs that provide voluntary, incentive-based tools for landowners to implement conservation practices that improve air and water quality, enhance and protect wildlife habitat, and restore our soil, making it one of the most important, if often unrecognized, environmental stewardship statutes. April 22 is Earth Day, so it’s an appropriate time to reflect on these widely-supported programs at work in Idaho that improve the environment the right way, through incentives rather than mandates.
Farm Bill conservation programs provide assistance for conservation on private lands that result in public benefits. The 2018 Farm Bill retained and invested in incentive-based conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Reserve Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service - Idaho, EQIP is the most utilized Farm Bill conservation program in Idaho. EQIP provides assistance to producers to address natural resources challenges. For Fiscal Year 2018, NRCS reports that EQIP has provided for conservation efforts on 20,508 more acres in Idaho as part of the Sage Grouse Initiative. Other resource efforts being addressed through the program include soil health; streambank and wildlife improvements; animal feeding operations; wind erosion; wildfire hazardous fuel reduction; irrigation efficiency and much more.
EQIP helped with the development of a solar powered stock water system on the Shoshone-Bannock Reservation to help address insufficient stock water for grazing. EQIP assisted a beginning farmer and rancher with installing wheel line irrigation systems to improve irrigation efficiency and install a cross fence to improve grazing management. EQIP has also been used to assist Nez Perce Tribal foresters with restoring a portion of the forest near Sweetwater Creek. In February, NRCS announced the availability of EQIP assistance for producers to help the monarch butterfly on their farms and ranches through a variety of conservation practices.
Farm Bill conservation programs also facilitate easements that protect important agricultural lands that serve as open space and prevent fragmentation of habitat. NRCS reports over the past 25 years, easements have been used nationwide to protect more than 4.4 million acres of wetlands and agricultural lands, resulting in improved soil health, water and air quality and wildlife habitat. For FY 2014-18, more than 89,000 acres in Idaho have been enrolled in ACEP easements to protect and restore lands, including grasslands and wetlands.
NRCS recently announced updates and signup for ACEP as well as CSP. The agency also reports there are nearly 100,000 CSP contract acres in Idaho; 538,994 acres are enrolled in CRP; and conservation partnerships supported through RCPP include the Idaho Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Stabilization and Portneuf River Fish Passage & Water Management. These are just some of the many ways Farm Bill conservation programs are being used by landowners, NRCS employees and conservation partners work together to advance local conservation efforts. Incentive-based conservation partnerships, such as these, are worthy of celebrating this Earth Day.
Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has served in the U.S. Senate since 1999. The views and opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Independent-Enterprise.