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New fees for conservation plans?

The two-year budget deal passed by Congress this month makes cuts to conservation spending, on top of cuts planned for the farm bill, and, for the first time since federal conservation programs began in 1933, it adds fees to be collected from farmers and landowners for conservation plans.

Groups like the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) accept that as part of shrinking our federal debt. But they’re not happy with a new fee that the budget would make the Natural Resources Conservation Service charge you – up to $150 for technical assistance on a conservation plan.

Farmers will be under a lot of pressure to grow more food for a global population of 9 billion by 2050 while still maintaining resources, says Earl Garber, NACD president.

"If we put in user fees, we're actually discouraging producers from meeting the goal we've given them," he says. The budget still had to be put into effect by House and Senate appropriations committees by January 15. Garber says it's not clear exactly how the fees would affect agriculture. There are exceptions, including conservation work mandated by regulations such as those for cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. Nor would USDA keep the fees, even though it must pay for collecting them.

"I think this is a huge mistake," says Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "This is $40 million. That’s what they think that over 10 years this will bring in." (Compare that with $1 trillion the budget allows for federal discretionary spending in 2014.)

Since the time conservation programs began, no fees have been charged for plans. Yet, the idea has been buried in presidential budgets for years, including President Obama's.

"Somebody who’s wearing a green eyeshade who doesn't understand how agriculture works put this together," says Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.

Garber hoped congressional appropriators would take the NRCS fees out of the budget agreement. Last week, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), an appropriations committee member, told, “Hopefully, we’ll get that fixed.”

Another committee member, Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD), shares that view.

"Of course, I didn’t like everything in the budget bill, but that’s what compromise is all about," he says. "One such example is the provision authorizing USDA to require a fee for conservation technical assistance. We shouldn’t be doing anything to discourage producers from participating in conservation programs, and I think it's highly unlikely for such a fee to be included in the FY 2014 Agriculture Appropriations bill."

Spending cuts will remain. A new farm bill trims $4 billion to $6 billion over 10 years; the budget deal adds to automatic cuts, taking away nearly $3 billion more over 12 years, Hoefner estimates. Annual spending bills have already cut another $3 billion from conservation programs.

Under Harkin’s leadership, two previous farm bills increased conservation spending by about $20 billion. "It’s like we’re taking half of that away," Hoefner says. As society pushes for things like cleaner water, "it's going to leave farmers more susceptible to regulatory approaches," he says.

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