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White House Backing of Farm Conservation Plan Falls Short

Environment: Some in Congress balk at the $5.9-million offer. The USDA requested $34.5 million for technical aid for two programs.

September 20, 2002|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The White House has agreed to supply less than 20% of the money requested by the U.S. Agriculture Department to support a major expansion of two farm conservation programs, prompting alarm from conservation groups and some influential members of Congress.

Following a congressional directive, the USDA asked the White House for $34.5 million this year to hire experts and provide support for two conservation programs. One helps landowners turn plowed fields back into wetlands, and the other pays landowners not to sell to developers.

Instead, the White House released $5.9 million for the programs, infuriating members of Congress who sponsored them.

"Maybe I should conclude that this administration does not support conservation, and this is the way they'll get at it--they'll bleed it dry by not providing technical assistance money," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman at a hearing earlier this week.

Administration officials responded that they are committed to the goals of helping farmers restore wetlands and conserve open spaces. The programs will not be diminished by the reduced funding for technical assistance, they said.

"We have worked this out in a manner in which we will be able to continue implementation of programs for 2002 in a manner that won't be noticed by farmers and ranchers in the countryside," said Bruce Knight, chief of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But congressional staffers expressed skepticism that the government can provide the farmers with the assistance they need to launch their conservation efforts without more funding.

"Without money to pay for that work, it's difficult to see how they can get it done," said a Harkin staff assistant.

Some members of Congress also criticized the administration for exceeding its legal authority by failing to spend funds as directed by Congress.

"The president can delay but cannot defer spending," said a spokesman for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the Agriculture Committee.

When Congress passed the farm bill earlier this year, it included $4 billion a year for a host of conservation programs. Because farmers and ranchers own so much land, they can play an important role in protecting the environment, and the Bush administration joined members of Congress from both parties in supporting programs with that goal.

The wetlands restoration program gives farmers grants to reconvert fields and grazing lands that were originally wetlands. This provides more habitat for wildlife and results in cleaner waterways. The farm bill called for more than doubling the amount of acreage to be restored as wetlands.

The Conservation Reserve Program, which is used to buy development rights from farmers to preserve open spaces, was expanded by 2.8 million acres from 39.2 million acres.

Seth Boffeli, Harkin's spokesman, said the senator considered the administration's decision to withhold money for technical assistance for these programs as a serious problem.

"In order to implement these programs, we need to have someone from the Agriculture Department to provide technical know-how," Boffeli said. "There are hundreds of millions of dollars that potentially could go unspent."

Conservation groups were concerned that Bush's Office of Management and Budget's stance signaled trouble for all conservation programs.

"It's potentially a sign that all the money in the farm bill for conservation programs is still up for grabs," said Ferd Hoefner, Washington representative for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a Midwest coalition of farm and conservation groups.

Hoefner said farmers and ranchers would feel the impact of this bureaucratic squabble. "They can't deliver the programs to the farmer without the technical assistance money," he said.

But Knight said it was premature to question the Bush administration's commitment to the conservation programs.

"The final judgment will be made by our deeds and actions after we've had time to fully implement the farm bill," Knight said.

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