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Farm bill outcome affects conservation

ST. PAUL - Agreement on new federal agriculture policies still could be at least two months away, and top negotiators told a conservation group Saturday that may put increased funding for their favorite projects at risk.

Conservationists stand to benefit from billions of dollars in new and expanded programs included in the House and Senate farm bills, but officials said a final deal is nowhere in sight.

"While we may not see the path to finish at this moment, the desire to finish is overwhelming," said Chuck Conner, acting U.S. agriculture secretary and the Bush administration's farm bill negotiator. "We want to get this done."

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the House agriculture chairman, said Congress needs to settle on a compromise farm bill prior to a mid-February congressional recess. If there is no deal by then, the Detroit Lakes Democrat said negotiations could run up to a March 15 deadline and the expiration of existing agriculture policy.

Peterson said he and Conner have met in recent weeks, "and we haven't made much progress."

"I don't really see how we're going to do this, and hopefully we'll figure it out in the next couple of weeks," Peterson later added, speaking before a crowd gathered for Pheasants Forever's national convention in St. Paul.

Congress approves new agriculture policy every five years. Lawmakers last year passed a temporary extension of the 2002 legislation.

While farmers, ranchers and even food stamp recipients wonder how they will fare under new federal agriculture legislation, the outlook for conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts is promising.

"The good news for conservation is by any measure, the debate is only about how much of an increase you're going to get for conservation," Conner said.

Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa, the Senate's agriculture committee chairman, agreed.

"Quite frankly, we make great strides ahead in conservation," he said.

However, conservation advocates may not see new funding for initiatives such as the Conservation Reserve Program -- in which the government pays farmers to take land out of agricultural production - if another extension of existing agriculture policy is needed or if an impasse forces a return to decades-old agriculture laws, Peterson said.

"We need a bill and we need it now," Dave Nomsen, a Pheasants Forever vice president and lobbyist, told the lawmakers and Conner. "Conservation loses dramatically without a bill now."

Some see a growing sense of urgency to boost funding for conservation programs as record-high grain prices make it increasingly difficult for the government to convince farmers to participate in conservation programs instead of expanding their agricultural production.

In North Dakota alone, Harkin said, 420,000 acres were removed last year from the Conservation Reserve Program, to be used for farming.

"This is alarming," he said. Both Harkin and Peterson said federal agriculture officials should provide higher rental rates to farmers with land in conservation programs.

Also Saturday, Conner announced a new initiative within the Conservation Reserve Program that designates over 250,000 acres nationwide as wildlife habitat. Beginning this spring landowners in designated areas of western and southern Minnesota can apply to be part of the so-called SAFE program. Up to 23,000 acres of Minnesota land will be eligible.

"Each acre they enroll, simply put, improves wildlife habitat," Conner said.

The program may be beneficial for specific wildlife projects, but it will not have a dramatic effect on whether farmers participate in the federal conservation program, said Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union.