Washington Watch, August 2012
Congress has recently taken steps to enact a new five-year Farm Bill, which would make substantial changes to conservation easement programs. Congress has until September 30, 2012 to pass a new bill or extend current law.
Senate: On June 21st, the Senate approved by a 64-35 vote that chamber's version of farm legislation. The Senate-passed bill merges three NRCS easement programs—Farm & Ranchland Protection Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Wetland Reserve Program. The three would form a new "Agricultural Conservation Easement Program" (ACEP). ACEP would have two branches: (1) Wetland Easements Program (essentially a continuation of the Wetlands Reserve Program) and (2) Agricultural Land Easements (which would encompass FRPP & GRP).
ACEP would be funded at $2.2 billion over federal fiscal years 2013 through 2017. Under the new program the Agricultural Land Easements would receive at least 40% of funding from ACEP.
Unfortunately, ACEP includes new cost-share requirements that may pose challenges in places where match is difficult to raise. Specifically, the federal share for Agricultural Land Easements is capped at 50% of FMV, and the eligible entity must provide cash match of at least half of what USDA/NRCS provides. Under current law, there is a 25% cash match requirement for the acquisition purchase price (not the FMV). In cases where there is a large LO donation, the new provision may require a greater non-federal cash contribution. Despite the efforts of TPL and other conservation organizations, it was not possible to improve this part of the Senate bill.
Bennet amendment: Senator Michael Bennet secured passage of a Farm Bill amendment to make an important clarification to the USDA/NRCS role with respect to easements. Under current law, USDA/NRCS delegates to third parties the authority to hold, monitor and enforce easements. The Senate-proposed Farm Bill, as initially written, was insufficiently clear with respect to these terms under the new ACEP. Bennet's amendment clarified that third parties would continue to hold the easements and that USDA/NRCS would not have a property interest. Rather USDA/NRCS's right to enforce the easement (if the third party fails to do so) is a condition of USDA/NRCS funding assistance. Lastly, the Bennet amendment ensures that non-contiguous tracts would remain competitive for easement funds. The draft bill would have given priority to contiguous tracts. TPL worked with Bennet's office on drafting and gathering support for the amendment.
House: On July 12th, the Agriculture Committee of the House of Representatives passed its version of the Farm Bill. The House committee's proposal included virtually identical language establishing ACEP. It also adopted Senator Bennet's amendment language. It is unclear, however, whether or when the full House will debate the Farm Bill.
If a full multi-year bill is not enacted before the end of this session of Congress, it is likely that an interim measure extending current law would be approved.
An amendment proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) to eliminate the Forest Legacy Program in the Farm Bill was overwhelming defeated in the Senate. There were 77 Senators who voted to defeat the measure.
Eliminating the Forest Legacy Program would have cut off funding to landowners-including forest products and timber companies-who are working with states to protect their economically important forests. The Lee amendment could have limited public access to forest lands for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, hiking, snowshoeing, paddling, camping and other forms of outdoor recreation. The LWCF Coalition applauded the Senate for defeating the proposal.
The Forest Legacy Program is a Cooperative Forestry program funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Using no taxpayer dollars, FLP has delivered tremendous benefits to the public, helping to conserve more than 2.2 million acres of working forest lands in 49 states since it was first authorized in the 1990 Farm Bill. This is accomplished primarily through conservation easement purchases, with nearly 50 percent of project costs leveraged from non-federal sources. A voluntary program, FLP emphasizes federal-state and public-private partnerships to achieve the common goals of protecting and maintaining forest jobs, recreational access, wildlife habitat and clean water.
On July 6, 2012 President Obama signed a two-year transportation reauthorization bill into law. Called MAP-21, Congress passed the conference report on June 29 and is now Public Law 112-141.
In March the Senate considered and passed its version of the bill. The House considered different drafts and passed a less comprehensive bill in April. This enabled the two chambers to proceed to conference to produce a final comprehensive transportation reauthorization bill.
When the Senate was considering its version, it passed an amendment on March 8 that provided mandatory funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $700 million a year for two years and extended its authorization for seven years from 2015 to 2022. The LWCF provision was also tied in the amendment to the RESTORE Act, which would direct BP oil spill penalty funds to restoration and acquisition in 5 Gulf Coast states. The amendment passed on a vote of 76-22. The House passed version included RESTORE language, but no funding for LWCF. In addition to ironing out differences on transportation matters, the conference negotiated numerous other issues, including LWCF and RESTORE, the Keystone XL pipeline, student loan interest rates, and the national flood insurance program.
As the conference report was negotiated during June, the LWCF Coalition worked to ensure that the Senate provision would be included in the final package. On the House side 32 Republican members sent a letter to Speaker John Boehner supporting LWCF and its impact on communities, recreation, and the economy. In a similar letter, 146 Democratic members wrote to the conferees in support of LWCF. On the Senate side, the Coalition worked with the 76 senators who had voted for the amendment in March. The Coalition also produced a statement of support for LWCF that was signed by more than 1,000 organizations, businesses, and groups from all 50 states.
The LWCF provision was one of the very last issues to be resolved. Unfortunately, the provision was not included in the final conference report. The Trust for Public Land issued a statement at the conclusion of the conference negotiations expressing its disappointment on the provision not being adopted.
The Trust for Public Land and the LWCF Coalition will continue to work with its growing list of congressional champions and supporters in upcoming months to secure funding for LWCF in other legislation and through the traditional means of the annual appropriations process.