Model Delmarva conservation site advances

`Development-free' plan by Gilchrest in farm bill Bush is expected to sign

May 02, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The three-state Delmarva Peninsula will become the first site of a new nationwide program that will create development-free zones for farmers and wildlife under a bill scheduled for final House approval today.

The final version of the farm bill produced by House and Senate negotiators includes the Delmarva Conservation Corridor proposal, sponsored by Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of the Eastern Shore. The Delmarva Peninsula includes parts of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill by the end of the month and send it to President Bush to be signed into law.

The success of the Delmarva proposal is a victory for Gilchrest, a Kent County Republican who has worked for more than two years to realize his vision of preserving large rural tracts where animals and plants can exist freely without subdivisions or shopping malls.

The proposal was not in earlier versions of the farm bill passed by the House and Senate. But after lobbying from Gilchrest and help from Rep. Richard W. Pombo, a California Republican, and Delaware's two Democratic senators, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Thomas R. Carper, the proposal picked up momentum by the time a House-Senate conference met to draft the final bill.

In pushing his proposal, Gilchrest argued that it would not only protect wildlife but would also help farmers increase their profits so that owners of rural tracts would not be as tempted to sell out to developers. Land set aside for farming, for example, could also be used to build processing plants.

"We're very happy," Gilchrest said. "We have a chance to show that you can have a habitat for wildlife, protect the watershed and make agriculture profitable. This is a great thing for the Delmarva Peninsula."

Gilchrest spoke with Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman as soon as details of the compromise bill became official. She will begin the process of coordinating more than 100 federal, state, local and private programs that provide money that could be applied toward aiding farm communities as well as protecting the environment.

No borders for the no-development zone have been drawn. Gilchrest said it would probably take a year to develop the corridor plan, working closely with farmers, state and county officials, and zoning boards on the peninsula.

"This won't work if you don't have good land-use practices," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do."

Besides the specific program for the Delmarva Peninsula, the bill authorizes similar development-free zones to be established elsewhere in the country if state and local officials favor them. That language targets the Chesapeake Bay region as an area of particular interest.

But environmentalists said the "conservation corridor" provision was among the few highlights of an otherwise inadequate bill that cut many other environmental programs, including a nitrogen-reduction plan for the Chesapeake Bay sought by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

Sarbanes' proposal would have provided $7 million a year over 10 years to reward farmers for cutting back on their use of soil nutrients that wash into the bay and damage aquatic life. His proposal had been included in the Senate-passed farm bill but was dropped from the final House-Senate version.

"They missed a golden opportunity to both help farmers and reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay," William H. Streeter of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said of the decision to drop the nitrogen-reduction program.

A spokesman for Sarbanes said the senator was disappointed that the negotiators had approved the conservation language for the bay without providing the money he was seeking to help back it up.

The final bill, which would raise farm spending by $73.5 billion over 10 years, is the product of nearly two months of negotiations to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions.

The measure reverses course from the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" legislation, which sought to wean farmers from federal crop subsidies. In restoring and increasing those subsidies, negotiators cut $4 billion of the $21 billion in new conservation spending that was part of the farm bill passed by the Senate.

"The Gilchrest program is a great idea, and I'm glad it was included, but it doesn't offset all the programs that were cut," said Tim Searchinger of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who was one of the negotiators, said that even at the compromise spending level of $17 billion, the farm bill calls for "the most consequential commitment to conservation we've had in our nation's history."

"We had to give and take in a lot of areas, including conservation," Daschle said.

In the House, some conservatives oppose the provision that will return to the practice of paying crop subsidies in the form of loan-rate guarantees.

"The deal reached by negotiators represents a giant leap backwards in federal agriculture policy," Reps. John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, and Cal Dooley, a California Democrat, said in a joint statement.

This provision, they contended, "will stimulate overproduction, lead to lower prices and force excessive government outlays. Government payments already represent more than 40 percent of net farm income."

But farm payments are highly popular in an election year. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the Republicans' chief deputy whip in the House, said he expected the bill to pass easily today.

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