Senate Reinstates Open Fields in 2012 Farm Bill Markup

For those of us who live in this place called "reality," the numbers we're about to discuss are mind-numbing.

Late last week, the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee approved a 2012 Farm Bill that cuts some $25 billion from the 2008 bill.

That's right -- $25 billion in cuts. Just how much money is spent when you can afford to cut $25 billion from the pot and still deliver a fairly robust package? Um, a whole lot. The entire Farm Bill comes in at nearly a half-trillion dollars over five years, which is roughly two percent of the nation's annual budget. The Farm Bill, as you may or may not know, contains some of the nation's most important fish and game habitat programs in its conservation titles. The Farm Bill is also where you'll find funding for programs such as foods stamps in the nutrition titles. It is a huge, sweeping package. {C}
About 7 percent of the Farm Bill funding is contained within the conservation titles. With lawmakers promising to make dramatic cuts to the 2012 Farm Bill, there was understandably plenty of angst amongst conservation organizations concerned that deep cuts to such entities as the Conservation Reserve Program, Wetlands Reserve Program and others would have dire consequences to fish and game populations.

The Senate-approved package does indeed make some deep cuts -- cuts that will force the merger of 23 programs under the previous Farm Bill to just 13 -- cuts that would reduce the amount of acres in CRP programs from 32 million to 25 million over the next three years. Still, the cuts aren't as deep as feared and are, in an odd way, reason to rejoice.

"Let me say that $6 billion in cuts to conservation isn't something we relish, and it certainly would have been easier if we didn't have to do this," said Steve Kline of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "But given what we were looking at not that long ago, this is a much better alternative."

While the crux of most discussion on the Farm Bill focuses on what was cut, it should be noted that a program that creates public access was saved -- at least for now.

In 2008, a new program, the Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program, designed to support walk-in hunting type initiatives that pay private landowners to allow public hunting or fishing access to their property was installed into the Farm Bill. The program, dubbed "Open Fields" allotted $50 million. About two dozen states took advantage of the program and the end result was increased public access to private lands. A number of existing access programs were expanded and brand new ones were also created.

With talk of the impending cuts to the 2012 Farm Bill, it was widely assumed that the VHA-HIP program would be chopped and, indeed, the Open Fields program was eliminated completely in earlier Senate versions of the bills. But the version passed out of the Senate Committee includes a $40 million budget for that program -- a $10 million decrease from the '08 version but a much higher number of course than zero.

The fight over the Farm Bill is far from over. The bill must still be voted on by the full Senate and that's not expected to happen for at least a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the bills are just starting to receive hearings in the House -- where legislators have vowed to make even deeper cuts than those recommended by the Senate committee.

What can you do to ensure the Open Fields program stays alive? Simple. Tell your legislator that it's important to you.