Land Conservation Bill Sparks Mountain of Debate : Agriculture: Farmers, environmentalists and lawmakers are all seeking common ground on measure to conserve soil by idling acres.


A struggle over acres and dollars has become more intense on Capitol Hill as farm-state lawmakers and environmentalists look more closely at conservation issues.

At stake is the expensive--but popular--Conservation Reserve Program. This program, which costs $1.8 billion a year, was created 10 years ago to prevent wind erosion and boost crop prices by idling land.

The program is set to expire, and its future must be determined in the farm bill now being drafted. Environmentalists and many farmers like the program, sometimes for different reasons and with different goals in mind.

Under the program, farm owners or operators may idle their environmentally sensitive land for 10 to 15 years in exchange for a government rental payment and half the cost of planting a protective cover.

About 36.4 million acres, or 8% of U.S. cropland, is enrolled in the program. Most of this land is in the Plains states. A big chunk of good cropland that can be safely farmed--if done carefully--has been tied up.

Environmentalists want more land targeted to combat erosion, a bigger problem east of the Mississippi, and to protect land where wildlife live.

Farmers also like the program because it pays them to conserve. Many government rental payments are higher than the market rate.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, put it more bluntly at a recent news conference.

"Some farmers who have been in the CRP, they want to stay in the CRP," he said. "They don't want to farm. They want the money from the thing."

Lugar says that's just the aim of a proposal being drafted by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), along with Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.).

Their conservation bill would let previously enrolled land be re-entered at 80% to 100% of the old rental rate. It would also let some non-erodible land in if the fields "cannot be economically and efficiently divided," a staff working paper said.

Critics say that will make it easier for the old Conservation Reserve Program land to re-enter, and at inflated prices. "That reduces the amount of money available for new enrollments," added Timothy Warman, director of federal policy for the American Farmland Trust.

No such thing, says a Senate staffer familiar with the proposal. All sign-ups, including re-enrollment of old lands, would have to meet new standards that focus more on problems like water pollution.

But the staffer, discussing the emerging bill only on grounds of anonymity, also said the formula would "cushion the drop" in payments to producers in states like Kansas, where rental rates were higher than average for lands that have been enrolled in the program for years.

At the same time, commodity groups have said that if farm spending must be cut, they would rather the remaining dollars go to crop payments.

Environmental groups like the Farmland Trust support a bill introduced in May by Lugar and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.). That bill would place emphasis on partial field enrollments, such as filter strips, hilltops and grass-lined waterways, saving more cropland for growing crops. His bill would pay a higher rate for those partially enrolled lands than the Dole-Grassley-Craig proposal.

At least 4 million acres would be targeted to strips of land along lakes, rivers and streams, to guard against water pollution.

Spending would drop from the current $1.8 billion now to $1.2 billion at the turn of the century, consistent with what the Congressional Budget Office projects spending will be under the present program.

The spending would be made mandatory, protecting it from future cuts, which environmentalists like.

On the House side, the Agriculture Committee is holding out for revised numbers from the CBO based on an Agriculture Department decision late last year to continue the program.

That would boost the so-called base line beyond the $1.2 billion used in the Lugar bill, allowing more acres in.

Environmentalists worry that holding off on a Conservation Reserve Program decision will expose the money to budget-cutting, a worry that the committee dismisses as it pushes to cut commodity spending and keep the CRP going.

Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the committee, said he envisioned 32 million acres remaining in the program, with about 26 million allocated to the traditional uses that benefit the Plains.

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