WASHINGTON – John Hall has seen Maryland farmers try to make sense of conservation programs. And he has seen them continually running into roadblocks.
They want to help the environment, said Hall, of the University of Maryland’s Cooperative Extension, but land conservation programs are just too disjointed and confusing.
“There are several conservation programs out there, and I think sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” Hall said.
That hodgepodge could be tidied up under a proposal being pushed in Congress that would make the Delmarva Peninsula a national test lab for conservation and environmental clean-up efforts.
The Delmarva Conservation Corridor project, championed by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, would create a network of land on the peninsula that would link agriculture, conservation and wildlife preservation.
“The goal is to make it easier for landowners to enroll in the different programs that USDA currently offers,” said Gilchrest aide Sally McGee.
Under the Delmarva pilot project, farmers with land in the corridors would be able to go to one place to enroll in every program for which they are eligible instead of struggling with the many fragmented conservation programs offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“They can go to one place and say, ‘This is what my land looks like, and where does it fall under the conservation corridor?'” McGee said.
Farmers would not be forced participate in any of the programs.
“It’s all entirely voluntary, just as all ag conservation programs are,” McGee said. But participating farmers “would receive priority consideration for all ag conservation programs.”
Gilchrest tried to get the program included in the House farm bill, but withdrew his proposed amendment after Agriculture Committee leaders assured him they would add the pilot program in conference with the Senate.
That chamber is still haggling over its version of the farm bill, and a Senate vote is not expected until next week at the earliest. Once the Senate acts, a conference committee will get together to negotiate differences between the bills and, presumably, consider adding Gilchrest’s proposal.
The program aims to keep agriculture viable while preserving water quality and wildlife habitat. Gilchrest said it is important to establish conservation areas on the Eastern Shore that reunite fragmented habitats there.
The corridors “would be like the veins and arteries of the peninsula,” he said.
“With the participation of local, state and federal interests, our shared goal is to establish and maintain a cohesive and well-functioning Delmarva Conservation Corridor — a well-functioning ecosystem that includes land used for agriculture, recreation and conservation,” Gilchrest said in a prepared statement.
The Maryland departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources would coordinate the program with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Interior, Gilchrest said.
Providing conservation incentives and creating local farming cooperatives would help struggling family-farm states like Maryland, Gilchrest said.
Hall said it is important to bolster agriculture for the conservation plan to work.
“We can’t have a viable conservation corridor without having a viable agriculture,” he said.
The goal is to bring together agricultural, conservation and wildlife programs and lands, he said, bettering farmers’ livelihood and environmental health at the same time.
Farm groups, like the Maryland Farm Bureau, have had little to say about Gilchrest’s plan because it is still mostly in Gilchrest’s head.
But Gilchrest and his staff are optimistic that the plan will ultimately be included in the farm bill.
“This could become a national jewel,” Gilchrest said.
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