POLITICO: Lawmakers Aim to Boost Conservation Programs

POLITICO, XIMENA BUSTILLO

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) exclusively told POLITICO that he will reintroduce his Climate Stewardship Act today to expand voluntary conservation programs. He’s hoping to attach the bill to Biden’s infrastructure package.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) will introduce a House companion bill, previously sponsored by then-Rep. Deb Haaland in the last session.

In a statement provided to POLITICO, Booker recalled the infrastructure expansion under FDR’s New Deal and said tackling climate change will require “the same kinds of bold investments…to seriously engage farmers, ranchers and rural communities as part of the solution to climate change.”

What’s in the bill? The bill is largely similar to the one proposed in 2019 by increasing funding and expanding USDA programs, including: the Rural Energy for American Program (REAP); the Environmental Quality Incentives Program; the Conservation Stewardship Program; and the Conservation Reserve Program. The bill would also triple conservation technical assistance funding to $2.1 billion.

Changes include the additional practices that can be eligible for funding under qualifying “climate stewardship practices,” an increase REAP funding and it creates additional priority and increased level of cost share for solar projects that include pollinator habitats.

The bill would also increase grants to farmers to buy equipment to implement climate stewardship practices and improve soil health.

The measure would also set aside funding for socially disadvantaged and new and beginning farmers and ranchers and aims to plant “billions” of trees by 2030, according to a congressional aide familiar with the legislation.

The bill would satisfy some of the demands of some groups looking for REAP expansion. Last week, dozens of national and regional agricultural groups, along with businesses and cooperatives, sent a letter to Biden, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and ag committee leaders asking for an expansion of the program to be included in the President’s Build Back Better agenda.

The bill would increase REAP funding to $3 billion per year over the course of 10 years, well above the $300 million the coalition of advocates was looking for.

Let negotiations begin: Booker and Spanberger see this bill as a top priority for inclusion in Biden’s infrastructure package, according to a Booker aide. Since the Climate Stewardship Act is largely budgetary, and can be included in a spending package, there is hope the full bill will pass without being split up.

What’s next: The bill didn’t see much action in either chamber in the last session, nor did it have Republican co-sponsors, but proponents of the bill are looking to pick up more co-sponsors this time around and be active in infrastructure negotiations.

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