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Possible cuts draw fire
By BRIAN DUGGAN
Bismarck Tribune
A U.S. Senate spending bill proposing about $331 million in cuts to agriculture conservation programs that were first included in this year's farm bill drew the ire of environmental advocates this week.

The Washington-based Environmental Working Group released a report Tuesday criticizing Congress for partially selling the farm bill for its conservation measures then proposing measures to cut its conservation funding by 8 percent.

"Subsidies are going to the largest farms and wealthy farm owners in a time of record profits," said Craig Cox, the author of the report. "It really suggests a skewed set of priorities."

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who sits on the panel that reported the spending bill, said spending had to decrease for conservation measures in order to secure funding for nutritional programs such as Women, Infants and Children and the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Center, which were eliminated under the White House budget.

"We're all disappointed that the farm bill didn't do more to prevent giant corporate farms from receiving millions of dollars in farm program payments," Dorgan said in a Thursday statement. "But the fact is this year's agriculture appropriations bill includes a significant increase in funding for conservation programs over last year."

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said the cuts the Senate is proposing are tentative and a result of pressure from the White House and Republican Senate minority to cut those programs even more.

"The leadership in both houses is simply not going to deal with these bills until the next administration," Johnson said.

The cuts affect five government conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, which took a 21 percent cut bringing its total from $1.3 billion to about $1 billion in funding, according to Cox's report.

Johnson said EQIP is one of the larger conservation programs used by North Dakota farmers and ranchers.

Other cuts include:

n $11 million, or 13 percent from the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program.

n $15 million, or 24 percent, from the Grazingland Reserve Program.

n $5 million, or 33 percent, from Agricultural Management Assistance.

n $15 million, or 12 percent, from the Farmland and Ranchland Protection Program.

In 2007, a lack of funding for EQIP forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service to turn away about 40,000 farmers who were interested in the program, according to Cox's report.

"They want to do the right thing but they're being turned away because the dollars aren't available," said Tony Dean, a South Dakota-based television personality who hosts Tony Dean Outdoors. Dean participated in a conference call with Cox regarding the report on Tuesday.

Randy Kreil, chief of the wildlife division in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said EQIP is a critical program for many North Dakota ranchers.

'It's one thing for Congress to authorize the program that has benefits to agriculture and wildlife but to not fund it basically cripples the program," Kreil said.

But that's not the entire story, said Rohit Mahajan, press secretary for Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who chairs the agriculture subcommittee that reported the agriculture spending bill.

Rising food prices have strained nutrition programs, which have resulted in less money for conservation measures, Mahajan said.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., helped draft this year's farm bill, which drew criticism for its record subsidies to large farmers but passed overwhelmingly despite Bush's veto.

The Tribune was unable to reach Conrad after several attempts. Staffers said he was busy with official business.

Still, Cox said Congress has a record of underfunding conservation programs. Since 2002, Congress has provided $1.7 billion less than what it pledged in federal farm bills.

For example, the 2002 farm bill was slated to give EQIP $6 billion by 2007. To date, EQIP has received about $5.3 billion from Congress, about $692 million less than first thought, according to the report.

"If the funding cuts for the environment stick, all of the congressional leadership's claims of progress protecting water supplies and wildlife will be seen as bogus - come-ons aimed at snagging votes and silencing skeptics of bloated subsidy programs," Cox wrote in the report.
 

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Here is a novel idea, why not instead cut $331M of subsidies to those corporate farmers making oodles of $?
 
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