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New Report: Wetland Conservation in the Farm Bill

The 2018 Farm Bill should further strengthen the historic, successful Swampbuster provisions.

WASHINGTON—As Congress works on passing a Farm Bill, a new short report from the National Wildlife Federation and Izaak Walton League of America highlights how the Swampbuster provisions have effectively protected wetlands for three decades—and details a few ways Congress could make these provisions even stronger. 

“Swampbuster is a classic, common-sense compact between farmers and taxpayers and it has proved its worth many times over,” said Julie Sibbing, the National Wildlife Federation’s associate vice president of land stewardship. “Swampbuster protects the wetlands that purify drinking water, reduce flooding, and provide outdoor recreational opportunities for millions of people in America. Congress should reject any efforts to weaken these provisions, which have done much to protect waterfowl and wildlife in the United States.”

The conservation compliance provisions known as Swampbuster were originally created in the 1985 Farm Bill. It is a pact between farmers and the American public—in exchange for publicly-funded subsidies on commodities, crop insurance premiums, farm loans and conservation programs, agriculture producers agree to keep the wetlands on their properties intact. 

Among the findings in Wetland Conservation in the Farm Bill: The Importance of Swampbuster:

  • Effective and Workable: Since 1985, when conservation compliance became part of the Farm Bill, U.S. agricultural output and productivity have increased some 50 percent. It is clear that Swampbuster has not been an economic deterrent to agribusiness.
  • Flexibility is Key: Swampbuster’s flexible protections have done much to protect America’s seasonal wetlands—particularly the Prairie Potholes in the northern Great Plains. This area is known as “North America’s duck factory”—with nearly 3 million ducks nesting annually in the eastern Dakotas alone. 
  • Keep the Compact: Congress should reject any efforts to undermine or weaken Swampbuster’s wetland compliance provisions. In particular, proposals to limit the loss of subsidies to the specific field where the wetland was destroyed would significantly reduce producers’ motivation to protect their wetlands.  
  • Use the Best Science: A scientifically-sound, objective process to determine and delineate wetlands is the heart of conservation compliance. Congress should require that Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) employs the best available science and technology, including the most current digital elevation data in making wetland determinations. This will increase the speed and accuracy of wetland determinations.
  • Improve Imagery Timing: Wetlands expand and contract as part of their natural cycle. In making determinations, the NRCS typically uses aerial photography taken during July and August, when heat and evaporation is highest, so some wetlands are undetected or their size is underestimated. The NRCS should instead use imagery taken in the spring, when migratory birds are breeding.
  • Staff Needed: The NRCS currently does not have enough experts on staff to conduct site visits in a timely manner—Congress should provide that funding in this Farm Bill. When private contractors are used, the NRCS should retain review and approval as a back-stop to ensure accuracy. 

“Our nation has lost more than half of its wetlands and those that remain are mostly on private property. That’s why these provisions are so critical,” said Duane Hovorka, Izaak Walton League’s agriculture program director. “Swampbuster is good for farmers, good for taxpayers and good for wildlife. Congress should use the 2018 Farm Bill as an opportunity to make this historic conservation effort even stronger and more effective.” 


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