White House seeks to cut conservation funding for help Bay farmers
Proposed cuts include EQIP, farmland protection plan and forest reserve program
The fate of a huge Farm Bill spending increase targeting the Bay watershed was clouded this summer when the Bush administration proposed withholding that money in the 2009 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
In an Aug. 7 letter to Congress, the White House Office of Management and Budget asked for the elimination of $23 million specifically aimed at Bay cleanup efforts during the next year.
It was among several cuts in farm programs outlined in the letter, which were aimed at freeing $172.3 million to pay for the modernization of computers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, and to provide staff and information technology support to implement the 2008 Farm Bill.
Corrine Hirsch, a spokeswoman for the administration's Office of Management and Budget, said the Bay funding was targeted because it did not undergo a "competitive, merit-based" review.
Some of the other proposed cuts were in programs that would also benefit the Bay, including the Farmland Protection Program, a new public access and habitat incentive program and the Healthy Forest Reserve Program. It also proposed cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, the largest nationwide source of agricultural conservation money.
The Farm Bill was passed in May, three months after the White House sent its proposed 2009 budget to Congress, so the recommendation came as part of a supplemental request to Congress.
The exact impact of the request is uncertain. Most of the conservation spending in the Farm Bill, including the Bay-specific funding, is considered mandatory. That means it typically does not have to go through the annual appropriations process, and is automatically available unless Congress takes specific action to reduce the funding.
Therefore, Congress would have to specifically endorse the administration's action-if it does nothing, the money would still be available.
The proposal was immediately criticized by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, who was one of the leading advocates for the additional Bay funding.
"President Bush's proposal to kill the new Chesapeake Bay Farm Bill funding belongs in the Bay's dead zone," Cardin said. "He is wrong on the science, wrong on our farmers' needs and wrong if he thinks the Congress will go along with this proposal."
Agricultural runoff is the largest single source of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake, and Bay advocates had made securing increased conservation program funding from the Farm Bill a top priority. The bill passed in June specifically set aside $188 million for the Bay, which would be spread over four years. The 2009 funding level was $23 million, with increased spending in the following years.
Advocates were furious at the White House proposal.
"The Chesapeake Bay conservation funding authorized by Congress was the single most important federal initiative in the last 30 years to reduce pollution and restore a healthy and productive Chesapeake Bay," said Will Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "From day one, the Bush administration has not made clean water a priority. This proposal to eliminate conservation funding continues that legacy."
Besides the money, accompanying language in the legislation gave the region increased flexibility to use it in ways that would enhance cleanup efforts.
"This isn't a cut, this is a gash," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents the legislatures of the Bay states. "It's a gash on two levels. It is a gash monetarily, and also a gash in hope. Finally, the money and ability to target efforts had come through, finally there was a solid opportunity to control agricultural pollution at significant levels, and these cuts stop us in our tracks."
Ironically, the USDA held a listening session in Annapolis in July to gather input about how the Bay money should be spent-before the cut was proposed.
In addition to the $188 million, the six states in the Bay watershed would get about $252 million more over the next five years from other conservation programs in the Farm Bill.
In recent years, the watershed had received about $80 million in conservation funding under the Farm Bill. If fully realized, the new Farm Bill would nearly double that.
- Category: Conservation + Land Use
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