U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, R-OK, has introduced his 10-year, $37 billion conservation bill which will expand and update existing conservation programs by $1.6 billion per year, as well as create a new program to preserve America's grasslands.

"The programs we have are working well, we just need to expand the number of landowners who can enroll in them," Lucas said. "Over the years, we have had more people applying for these programs then the programs can afford. The programs don't do any good for the land or its owners if they just sit on a waiting list for a partially-funded program."

Lucas' bill HR 2480, the Conservation Investment Act of 2001, will expand the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to $1.2 billion per year. This is six times the amount authorized in the previous farm bill.

Since passage of the last farm bill, EQIP has averaged from three to six times the number of applications than could be approved through the available funding. EQIP provides technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers who face threats of soil or water erosion.

"From the hearings we held in Washington, DC, as well as Weatherford, OK, the overwhelming consensus from farmers and ranchers is that these programs are working, but they could work better with adequate funding," Lucas said. "If we know the environment and landowners benefit from these programs, we should ensure they are fully funded."

The bill also will expand the Conservation Reserve Program, which enables producers to retire highly erodible or environmentally sensitive cropland. The bill increases the national acreage available under CRP to 40 million acres, an increase from 36 million acres under current rules.

"In times of commodity surpluses, CRP gives producers another option for their land, as well as benefiting environmentally sensitive cropland," Lucas said.

Lucas' bill also creates a new Grasslands Reserve Program, which will protect 3 million acres of grasslands through 10-, 15- or 20-year easements. Owners of grasslands would be paid to use environmentally beneficial grazing practices. Landowners would be allowed to use their grasslands for limited grazing and haying.

The bill is the result of three conservation hearings that Lucas presided over as chairman of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Credit, Rural Development and Research. Representatives from each agriculture industry segment, from agriculture trade groups, as well as representatives of the livestock industry each gave input on the current farm bill and changes they would like for the conservation section of next farm bill.

The current farm bill, which expires in 2002, includes seven "titles," or sections, including conservation. The House Agriculture Committee will replace the 1996 farm bill with a new bill this year. Lucas' bill likely will be included as the conservation title of the next farm bill.

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