WASHINGTON – Maryland officials Thursday hailed a Senate bill that would increase conservation funding to the state’s farmers more than five times over, and would target the Delmarva Peninsula for land conservation and wildlife preservation efforts.
The Conservation Assistance and Regional Equity Act, introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Harry Reid, D-Nev., would more than double funding for farm conservation efforts to $5 billion nationwide. Supporters estimate that Maryland’s share of conservation funds could rise from the current $4.8 million to $27.4 million.
The bill also encourages the establishment of “conservation corridors” on Delmarva that would encourage farmers to take a regional approach to preservation. The conservation corridor language is almost identical to an approach that Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, has been trying to get included in the agriculture appropriations bill.
Gilchrest and Maryland Natural Resources Secretary J. Charles Fox praised the senators’ bill Thursday at a Capitol Hill news conference, saying such conservation incentives are vital to the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
“This legislation is probably the single most important action we can take today to protect and improve the health of the Chesapeake Bay,” Fox said in a statement. “As we look forward in the future, not just in this region but around the country.
“We simply cannot save the bay without a strong conservation title in the farm bill,” he said at the news conference.
Gilchrest said it is important to establish conservation areas on the Eastern Shore that reunite fragmented habitats.
“Because it’s a microcosm of America, we have lost and fragmented both ag lands and habitat for wildlife,” Gilchrest said. “What this legislation does is focus on helping to keep ag land contiguous.”
Gilchrest said farm-oriented conservation efforts would benefit family farmers in Maryland and help protect the environment at the same time.
Another aim of this bill is to achieve geographic equity in the distribution of farm dollars, said Leahy. Supporters of the bill note that 15 farm states currently consume about three-quarters of the federal subsidy payments for commodity crops. Most of the nation’s farmers do not grow crops that qualify for support.
Leahy said his bill would guarantee “that every state is involved. Most of it (subsidy funding) goes into just a handful of states.”
Gilchrest and Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., and John Dingell, D-Mich., tried unsuccessfully to get a conservation funding formula in the House agriculture appropriations bill, in an effort to spread subsidies among more regions of the country.
“Maryland farmers year after year after year are on a waiting list for conservation funds because we just run out of money,” Gilchrest said in September.