Vilsack champions habitat program in campaign mode

Oct 12, 2012

The strong southern wind warmed up western Iowa last Monday, but tested the efforts of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to talk about enrollment in a wildlife habitat initiative that is part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

Landowners with more than 400,000 combined acres are ready to sign con tracts

under the State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program, Vilsack said. People are ready to sign the papers, it’s just that they can’t right now because Congress has been unable to pass a farm bill, Vilsack told a few farmers, state USDA agency leaders and reporters on Monday.

The comments highlight that Vilsack continues to put heat on Congress and pick his spots in places he is popular, such as his home state of Iowa. Yet, Iowa also is a swing state and it’s now less than a month before what appears will be a close presidential election. The farm bill discussion also was held in a congressional battle—in Iowa’s third congressional district— created through redistricting between incumbent Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican, and Rep. Leonard Boswell, a Democrat and member of the House Agriculture Committee. Boswell, who started the race from behind, has gained ground in recent weeks. Vilsack’s wife, Christie, is running for the fourth congressional district in northwest Iowa.

In response to a question about the appropriateness of mixing official business in high-stake electoral states, Vilsack said the SAFE program, its workings and the role such programs play in recreation and conservation justified the setting and time. Vilsack noted Iowa is one of the leading states in CRP, Grassland Reserve Program acres and Wetland Reserve Program acres. “So it’s appropriate and necessary,” he said. “It’s the beginning of hunting season so it’s appropriate to talk about habitat. It’s also, I think, really important to educate people about the link between habitat and conservation and economic benefits because that is on the mind of everyone: How do we improve the economy?” Vilsack, who was to host a drought forum last Tuesday in Omaha, added, “We’re on our way to Omaha to have a conversation about drought, and rather than just be in a car, this seemed like a great opportunity and a great location to underscore the importance and I think the SAFE program is an important part of that. It’s got nothing to do with elections. I’ve been doing this all year long. I’ve been doing this for four years and I plan to keep doing it, as long as I’m secretary.”

The agriculture secretary wasn’t the only one working the farm vote last week, however. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney planned to campaign Tuesday at a farm in southcentral Iowa.

Vilsack said the country spends $145 billion on outdoor recreation, “So it is big business and important business in rural America.”

That business also generates $700 million in taxes for state and local governments in Iowa as well, Vilsack added.

USDA has had three general signups in the Obama administration that has led to 9,000 new contracts with about 70,000 acres. Still, acres are also coming out as quickly as they are coming into the program, if not quicker.

SAFE operates as an additional payment incentive for landowners who target certain acres specifically for certain wildlife habitat in the CRP. About 20 states will get 400,000 additional acres to apply to the SAFE signup for a variety of wildlife habitat programs. Landowners in Iowa will be allowed 50,000 acres mainly to help improve pheasant habitat. The goal for USDA is to enroll as many as 1 million acres in the SAFE program, Vilsack said.

Yet, none of these contracts and enrollments in SAFE can be done until Congress completes a farm bill, Vilsack said. The 2008 farm bill expired earlier this month, which put on hold any efforts to enroll land in CRP. Vilsack said “connecting the economic driver” to the public should help spur Congress to make passing the farm bill a priority when lawmakers return for a lame-duck session after the election.

Gary Matters, a bank officer executive in Council Bluffs, IA, explained that his parents own the 200 acres used as a backdrop near Lewis, about 25 miles east of Council Bluffs. Matters has used the CRP to segment off different areas as buffer strips and bird-nesting habitat. Because of higher incentives and cost-share, Matters would like to put another piece of the property into the SAFE program. If he can’t get into the SAFE program, Matters said he would have to consider renting that ground.

Vilsack was asked about the ability to get the farm bill out of the lame-duck session. During the lame duck session, lawmakers will have to deal with how to manage tax cuts, the sequestration budget cuts, and possibly policy legislation such as the farm bill. “So it makes it much, much more complex than if they had gotten their job done before Sept. 30,” Vilsack said.

He added there is a risk lawmakers fail to agree on a farm bill, which could translate into a short-term extension in to the new Congress or the possibility of reverting to the permanent policy in the 1949 farm bill. — Chris Clayton, DTN