WASHINGTON, D.C. - An increasingly concerned Congressman Larry Combest (R-TX), Chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, Resource Conservation, and Research, today praised the historical benefits of the Conservation Reservation Program (CRP), but remained uneasy about the Agriculture Department's final rule on the program, as the subcommittee opened it's first oversight hearing of the 105th Congress.
(Audio from Chairman Combest's opening statement is available by calling (202) 226-3977. Combest's comments play twice.)
Under CRP, which was reauthorized in the 1996 Farm Bill, landowners enter into contracts with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to place erodible and other environmentally sensitive cropland in long-term conservation practices for 10-15 years. In exchange, landowners receive annual rental payments for the land and cost-share assistance for establishing those practices. Of 32.9 million acres enrolled nationwide, some 22 million acres are expiring September 30.
"I have said for the last several years that the CRP is one of the best examples of a successful government program that produces tremendous public benefit through a public/private partnership," Combest said in remarks prepared for Wednesday's hearing. "Nationally, figures indicate that the CRP has saved 695 million tons of soil annually."
"As I am sure we will hear today, the CRP enjoys wide support from many different perspectives. Farmers benefit from the reduced soil erosion on their land, which also benefits local residents in their area. Sportsmen benefit from the wildlife habitat established by CRP, and environmentalists support the conservation benefits of the program, as well. This wide support was clearly evident when the House voted to extend the program in the 1996 Farm Bill by a vote of 372-37," Combest said.
"However, I, as well as other Members of Congress, farmers, and others have some very strong concerns that will be expressed today. First and foremost is timing. The language of the farm bill directed the Department to issue regulations for CRP by 90 days after enactment. That means July. But the Department missed that deadline by a few months and finally issued a proposed rule at the end of September of last year. Now it is almost March, and we are looking at a final rule and signup to begin in a couple of weeks. The Department now has an enormous job to complete its job in a short period and it is very critical the schedule that they have set be strictly adhered to in order to let farmers know their options in time to make decisions about the future use of their land," Combest said.
"I believe there are some very good attributes to the Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) that the Department has established. However, the complexity involved with this scoring process, coupled with the lateness of this rule, has led to much uncertainty and fear in the countryside. The devil is in the details. Now that the Department has had a chance to train local employees on the procedure for assigning points under the EBI we want to make sure that the actual comparative scoring of various types of land around the country results in a regional balance. From information I have received the last few days, I am increasingly concerned," Combest said.
Combest represents Texas' 19th Congressional District, which includes the Panhandle, South Plains, and the Permian Basin.