Farm Bill Will Yield Benefits to Birds and Other Wildlife

Conservationists say the long-stalled legislation contains a number of victories.

A bitter, drawn-out food fight is finally over. Today President Obama signed the farm bill into law, after years of sour arguments over farming subsidies and Republican efforts to slash food stamp funding. While anti-hunger advocates called the food stamp cuts in the final bill "devastating," conservationists by and large commended the nearly $1 trillion legislation.

"The final 2014 farm bill isn't perfect," said the National Wildlife Federation in a statement, "but overall, it is a very strong bill that supports conservation, wildlife, and renewable energy, and includes critical funding for programs that benefit soil, water, and wildlife."

Brian Moore, Audubon's legislative director, agrees. He points to one of the biggest changes: Under the new bill, farmers must implement and comply with basic soil and wetlands protections to qualify for federal crop insurance subsidies.

"This will protect millions of acres of wetlands and reduce erosion," says Moore. "The biggest win is the inclusion of this conservation compliance. This was Audubon's top priority in the farm bill."

The conservation community also pushed hard for the "Sodsaver" program, which limits subsidies for farming on marginal lands—like native grasslands—that should be protected. "It denies subsidies to farmers if they break previously unfarmed native prairie," says Moore.

While a compromise in the final version of the bill limited Sodsaver to just six Midwestern states, they're primarily in the prairie pothole region—an area where the protections are sorely needed.

As Ted Williams points out in a recent Audubon story "The Edge of Insanity":

Massive conversion of grasslands and wetlands to row crops is the new normal on the Great Plains, including America's "duck factory," the prairie pothole region (mainly in the eastern Dakotas, southwestern Minnesota, north-central Iowa, and eastern Montana). Prairie potholes—fishless, usually temporary, and rich in invertebrates—produce most of North America's waterfowl. But they're being drained at an alarming rate. Estimates range from a 50 percent loss in the Dakotas to a 99 percent loss in Iowa. At least 300 species of migratory birds rely on the prairie pothole region.

The bill also reduces the amount of land that can be enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (a bummer) and consolidates conservation programs from 23 down to 13; although that might sound bad, Moore says, "this merger will potentially reduce complexity and increase efficiency in the programs."

It's not an ideal bill. But by and large the rotten attempts by the House to gut conservation programs didn't stick.