From Resources First Foundation

From RFF President Amos Eno: All roads to conservation are converging on the privately owned lands which constitute 71% of the lower 48 states – the lands which are the most fertile and best watered. These are the lands which host the best opportunities for everything from carbon sequestration and improving air and water quality, to preserving biodiversity and enhancing hunting, fishing and wildlife habitat. Recognizing the vital need for private lands conservation, Resources First Foundation and its Private Landowner Network have built a unique conservation database which provides a direct and trusted pipeline to the 13 million men and women who own the nation’s farms, ranches and private forests. With a surge of interest in private lands, we’re gearing up for a flood of new users accessing our main PLN portal – and for a flood of new donors to contribute to expanding our information database.

The great good news is that after a century of federal government focus on public lands acquisition, the current administration is speaking up loudly in favor of shifting the focus toward private lands. The latest chapter of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative included this welcome headline: “USDA and Interior Announce Wildlife Conservation Efforts to Support Local Economies and Preserve Farm and Ranch Traditions – Innovative partnership preserves working lands and supports efforts of private landowners to conserve habitat for at-risk species.”

According to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ten days ago, the new USDA/DOI $33 million “Working Lands” partnership with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners “aligns our goals of empowering America’s farmers and ranchers to continue working their lands, while furthering conservation of imperiled species, such as the greater sage grouse, through voluntary measures.” Speaking as an experienced rancher himself, Salazar concluded that “The Working Lands for Wildlife initiative will allow us to focus our resources where we can do the most good and will serve as a model for a more efficient, more effective, and more cooperative way to improve the health and diversity of working landscapes and strengthen local economies.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack added that “America's natural resources play a significant role in building a strong and vibrant economy. Agricultural lands with healthy and abundant wildlife habitat support strong incomes for our farmers and ranchers and provide great opportunities for enhancing hunting and fishing, outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing.”

Note that the administration’s recent announcements of important conservation initiatives repeatedly echo the themes we’ve championed for a dozen years: “working lands” (in contrast to locked-away wilderness) and cost-sharing for “voluntary measures” (in contrast to top-down regulatory mandates which impose non-reimbursed costs). For more on this significant shift, see the “Signing Up” and “Endangered Species Act” items below.

There’s more good news in the fact that Sec. Salazar is working closely with our western colleagues at Partners for Conservation: rancher Jim Stone of the Blackfoot Challenge project in Montana and Jim Faulstich, a South Dakota rancher who had Salazar visit his ranch last summer.

Budget cuts are closing down more Ag Extension and USDA county offices across the country. Offsetting these cuts, our free Internet sites continue to host all USDA and Interior Department conservation programs along with the private-sector services essential for program implementation. Adding value, for the aging population of landowners facing financial pressure to sell out to development, RFF sites such as the Conservation Tax Center provide links to more than 1,000 estate and tax attorneys, 2,800 consulting foresters and 1,700 land trusts – all resources designed to “keep working lands working."

Please Assess Our Arkansas Site
Here’s the link to our Arkansas Conservation Center survey which is now open for your comments: www.surveymonkey.com/s/TVDFYST Please take the time to complete this survey created to assess how well our newest web-based product is meeting your needs. Our Arkansas Conservation Center project is nearly complete. Your feedback on this web portal is important to help us improve our information and ease of navigation, and to report on the value of this resource to YOU, our users! This survey should only take two to three minutes of your time. Your answers will be completely anonymous. Many thanks in advance.

Sign-Up for Cost-Share Payments
USDA’s new Working Lands for Wildlife program offers landowners the opportunity to earn cost-share payments for restoring and managing high-priority habitats for seven specific wildlife species located across the country. To enroll in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), visit your local NRCS field office. Two conservation practices which improve sage-grouse habitat are prescribed grazing and brush management. In the past two years, ranchers implemented grazing systems on 1.3 million acres of large sagebrush to improve cattle forage and increase hiding cover for nesting birds. The additional grass cover is projected to increase sage-grouse populations by 8 to 10 percent. As an added benefit, in return for voluntarily making habitat improvements on their private lands, landowners can get regulatory certainty that they will not be asked to take additional conservation actions.

Endangered Species Act Improvements
Confirming administration support for voluntary conservation on private lands, the Interior Department wants your comments on improving the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Interior is looking for ways improve incentives, such as by providing pre-approved conservation credits for landowners who implement voluntary conservation practices which improve wildlife habitat.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes explains that “Farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners are among our nation’s greatest champions for conservation, and we all have a stake in ensuring that working lands remain healthy for our economy and for future generations . . . we are looking at ways to give private landowners and other stewards of the landscape more tools and support to provide important habitat for wildlife that is at risk.”

Fish & Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe adds that “If we can help species stabilize and improve the health of at-risk wildlife before they need the protection of the Endangered Species Act, we all benefit. We want to do all we can to help keep working lands healthy because we know it’s not just good for wildlife, but it’s also important to local communities, farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers, and other recreationists.”

Potential ideas for improving incentives to landowners include establishing conservation “banks” for candidate and other at-risk species. Already in use in many parts of the country for listed species, conservation banks sell credits that allow landowners to offset the impact of their activities on those species, as well as to buy credits that reward landowners for making habitat improvements. By focusing its resources strategically, the bank can conserve habitat on a landscape scale and provide greater benefits to a species rather than having small, isolated patches of habitat on many different properties.

For information on the Fish & Wildlife Service’s ESA plans and to submit your own comments, click here.

2012 Farm Bill Uncertainties
Following its field hearings in New York March 9, Illinois March 23 and Arkansas March 30, the House Agriculture Committee wraps up the series with an April 20 hearing in Kansas. Next step will be Capitol Hill hearings with the goal of writing the 2012 Farm Bill before the current bill expires September 30 this year. At the March 23 hearing in Galesburg, House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas promised to develop a flexible farm bill providing options that work “for all regions and all commodities,” explaining that “what works here in Illinois won’t work as well for my constituents in Oklahoma.” He said “the Commodity Title must give producers options so that they can choose the program that works best for them.”

Lucas promised to “work to ensure that producers can continue using conservation programs to protect our natural resources” and asked landowners for advice on “how to simplify that process so they are easier for our farmers and ranchers to use.”

Lucas is also asking for advice on writing a Farm Bill which “contributes to deficit reduction” – which is just what the committee’s ranking Democrat warns about. While Lucas welcomed the latest federal budget proposal from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Collin Peterson warned that the Ryan budget proposal “all but guarantees there will be no Farm Bill this year” because “The Ryan budget proposes significant cuts in the farm safety net and conservation programs, and slashes spending on nutrition programs that provide food for millions of Americans.” Peterson says he supports judicious farm spending cuts only if cuts are spread evenly across “all other sectors of our economy.”

On the Senate side, there’s concern that Republicans could delay Farm Bill work on the Farm Bill in the hope that they will gain control of the Senate in the November elections, putting Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) in charge of writing the next Farm Bill if it is postponed until 2013.

We Welcome Your Input & Insights
To contribute items for our national conservation database or offer your comments, please email: jharsch@resourcesfirstfoundation.org. We welcome your participation in expanding our information resources and we're especially seeking success stories about farmers, ranchers and forest owners who are actively engaged in “keeping working lands working.”

Read our blog posts on the Tecumseh Land Trust in Ohio, a great example of how the right land trust with the right approach can play an essential role for farmers and ranchers – helping to keep their land in the family, to fend off development pressure, and even to reassemble farmlands that have parceled and sold off over the years.

We need your support to continue providing PLN’s unique resources
Landowners must make critical land management choices. Making a wise choice when it comes to conservation easements, good land stewardship or legacy land requires in-depth research on a very complicated subject. Access to a single, comprehensive, on-line database offers a valuable time saver for every landowner interested in good land stewardship. Resources First Foundation ’s web-based products database, Private Landowner Network, provides every private landowner direct access to experts across the board. Need a certified forester? Want land conservation tax advice? In our constantly expanding portfolio you will find experts in all fields of conservation, from tax and estate planners and advisers to alternative energy, green building, land trusts, and technical resources.

At a time when state and federal conservation funds are being cut, please consider supporting PLN with your tax-deductible donation today.

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