IFB troubled by Swampbuster rule

Guebert asks for clear, reasonable requirements for farmers in letter outlining organization's concerns.

By Deana Stroisch

Citing a lack of transparency and due process, Illinois Farm Bureau remains “extremely troubled” by USDA’s interim final rule governing a federal conservation compliance program.

IFB President Richard Guebert Jr. outlined the organization’s concerns in a nine-page letter, now part of the official federal docket.

“In filing this comment, IFB is answering the repeated call of its farmer members to help shape rules that are consistent with congressional intent and provide clear, reasonable requirements for farmers,” Guebert wrote.

USDA proposed changes to the Highly Erodible Land and Wetland Conservation Compliance provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, also known as Swampbuster.

Under the current rules, farmers who want to convert wetlands for production of an agricultural commodity must compensate for the wetland functions that are lost. Those found in violation become ineligible for farm program benefits and crop insurance risk premium support.

Proposed changes to the rule, Guebert said, would make program participation “significantly more difficult.”

IFB policy generally acknowledges that “wetlands provide certain benefits” to the environment. Policy also supports “reasonable efforts to discourage their conversion.”

“However, that should not mean that in all instances wetland conversion is unnecessary or that private landowners should solely bear the cost of protecting wetlands,” Guebert wrote. “Any effort to protect wetlands should recognize the rights of private property owners and drainage districts.”

Other IFB concerns about the proposed rule include:

- Exempted conversion date. Current statute exempts “converted wetland if the conversion of the wetland commenced before Dec. 23, 1985.” The interim final rule requires all conversions to have “occurred by that date.”

“USDA should make clear across the board that the statute recognizes conversions that commenced, but were not completed, prior to December 23, 1985,” Guebert wrote. “This issue has been the central debate in many cases on the ground in Illinois, causing farmers frustration as they get different answers from various USDA staff throughout the process, unclear options for resolution, and no simple path to bring clarity.”

- “Once converted always converted” principle. IFB urged USDA to publish clarifications that reiterate the principle “once converted always converted” and Congress’ clear direction that a wetland can be farmed using normal cropping and ranching practices.

“Illinois farmers, now and into the future, should be able to rely on previous converted determinations without fear of constant evolution,” Guebert wrote. “As of today in Illinois, our younger farmers are facing evidentiary issues that are caused by them either not being alive or owning/farming the ground in question prior to 1985 or 1996. All evidence presented at every stage of the interaction with USDA and the National Appeals Division is deemed ‘anecdotal.’ Once converted always converted has never been more important.”

- New definitions. IFB also expressed concerns with changes to the definitions of “farmed wetland” and “prior-converted cropland.”

- Minimal effects determination. The rule also changes the procedure for minimal-effects determinations to allow wetlands to be evaluated based on a “general knowledge of wetland conditions in the area.”

Guebert expressed concerned that the “removal of the on-site requirement for area wetlands could introduce more unchecked discretion into a minimal-effects determination process where the scales are already tipped in USDA’s favor.”