The president’s budget recommendation proposes streamlining conservation programs, allegedly saving the taxpayer over $13 billion over ten years. The budget proposes eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Part of the savings by eliminating these programs would go to additional funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).
Congress needs to reevaluate CSP (and all conservation programs, for that matter) to ensure the programs are cost-effectively achieving their intended goals. The budget’s stated reasoning behind eliminating the CSP comes from an audit report by the USDA Office of Inspector General, which found that over 30 percent of CSP contracts reviewed contained errors or inconsistencies including ineligible participants receiving CSP contracts. The principles we’ve articulated for income safety net programs (cost-effective, transparent, accountable to taxpayers, and responsive to need) also need to be applied to conservation. Even before getting into the Inspector General’s finding, the design of CSP—paying for practices producers already implemented or would have done so without the government payment— often falls short of these principles. Congress should reevaluate the program in the next farm bill.
The RCPP is a different story. It’s a step in the right direction for conservation. Instead of spreading conservation funding across the country in a scattershot manner, it moves toward a more targeted approach, concentrating funding in a number of “critical conservation areas.” Rather than farmers and ranchers directly applying for funding, partner entities (farmer co-ops, state/municipal governments, NGOs, American Indian tribes, etc.) submit proposals, and funding is awarded via a competitive process. It’s not perfect, but overall, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program has been a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars than other agricultural conservation programs. RCPP shouldn’t be eliminated, it should be reformed. Lawmakers should ensure that it, and all other conservation programs, produce the most bang for the buck. The Healthy Fields and Farm Economies Act would be a good start to doing so.