Bipartisan bills aim to save America’s prairies, grasslands

 Scott Streater

E&E News reporter

 

Published: Thursday, October 5, 2017

Congressional leaders from South Dakota and Minnesota are spearheading a bipartisan effort to include legislation in the 2018 farm bill designed to protect native prairie and grasslands by limiting federal subsidies for farmers who plow these areas for cropland.

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) yesterday introduced S. 1913, titled the “American Prairie Conservation Act.” The “sodsaver” bill would create economic disincentives for farmers to plow native prairies and grasslands by closing a crop insurance yield substitution loophole in all 50 states.

Sens. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) co-sponsored the Senate version of the legislation.

Also yesterday, Reps. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) introduced the House version of the bill, H.R. 3939.

The legislation would not prevent farmers from converting native sod to cropland. But a summary of the bill says farmers who choose to do so would “face a reduction in crop insurance premium subsidy assistance and a reduction in guaranteed yields of insured crops.”

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that implementation of the sodsaver legislation in all 50 states could save taxpayers more than $50 million over 10 years.

Thune said in a statement that the goal of the legislation is not only to save money, but to “protect America’s diminishing prairie grasslands that are so important to our grazing livestock producers.”

Indeed, the legislation comes at a time when grasslands are disappearing rapidly across the Great Plains (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2016).

“Not only is this an example of a good-government solution, but the savings achieved by our bill could be used elsewhere in an already cash-strapped farm bill,” Thune said in a statement.

Thune sponsored legislation that added a sodsaver provision to the 2008 farm bill. Thune and Klobuchar in the Senate, and Walz and Noem in the House, also sponsored legislation that added the sodsaver provision to the 2014 farm bill. But in each case, it only applied to prairies and grasslands in six states — South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana and Nebraska.

The legislation “has successfully reduced the conversion of native sod, saved taxpayer dollars and encouraged wildlife habitat” in those six states, Klobuchar said.

But she added the latest bills “would extend this small, commonsense change to the crop insurance program and boost conservation efforts and savings nationwide.”

A study led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that the vast majority of new croplands — 5.7 million acres — plowed between 2008 and 2012 were grasslands (E&E News PM, April 2, 2015).

What’s more, the study found that two-thirds of cropland conversion during this time period occurred outside the six states in which the 2008 and 2014 farm bills instituted the sodsaver provision.

The legislation is strongly supported by conservation groups like the National Wildlife Federation.

“America’s prairies provide essential habitat for ducks, pheasants, raptors, songbirds and pollinators — yet we’ve lost more than 90 percent of original prairie acreage to the plow,” said Collin O’Mara, NWF’s president and CEO.

“This commonsense, bipartisan bill represents a concrete opportunity for this Congress to conserve one of America’s most iconic American landscapes and the wildlife species, ranching operations and sequestered soil carbon they support,” he added.

 

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