JONESBORO -- Anne Marie Doramus asked for more conservation funding in the 2023 federal farm bill Friday at a panel discussion at Arkansas State University.
Doramus, a member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, represented the commission at a meeting of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. Committee Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Sen. John Boozman, ranking minority member, hosted the meeting.
Two guest panels addressed the senators. The first panel contained Doramus, Nathan Reed of Marianna, Brad Doyle of Weiner, John McAlpine of Monticello, Mark Morgan of Clarksville and Jennifer James of Newport.
Reed is chairman of the American Cotton Producers. Doyle is president of the American Soybean Association. McAlpine is president of Kingwood Forestry Services, Inc. Morgan owns Peach Pickin' Paradise and Morgan Farms. James is chair of the USA Rice Sustainability Committee.
Doramus said that outdoors recreation creates an $9.7 billion economic impact in Arkansas, and that waterfowl hunting alone generates about $200 million in the state annually and supports thousands of jobs. Because more than 90% of Arkansas is privately owned, the public/private partnerships that U.S. farm policy traditionally supports is vital to providing wildlife and fish habitat in the state while also facilitating environmental integrity.
"Conservation issues are quality-of-life issues in Arkansas," Doramus said. "The farm bill's conservation programs represent the single largest investment in private land conservation."
Wetland Reserve Easements is one successful component of existing farm policy.
"Arkansas is a national leader in WRE with more than 270,000 acres enrolled in the program," Doramus said. "This is important to recharge aquifers, to clean and filter surface water, to build wildlife habitat in critical core areas and to provide recreational land for people who love wildlife. We believe increased funding for WRE and management for WRE projects, especially for waterbird areas, are needed."
WRICE, a popular component of the federal Voluntary Access Program in Arkansas, pays rice farmers to leave a portion of their crop to attract ducks. The commission manages limited amounts of duck hunting on WRICE properties through its controlled hunt program.
"Water birds are a continental resource, and waterfowl need winter water in Arkansas just as much as they need grasslands in their nesting grounds up north" Doramus said. "The public and our users are desiring more access to hunting and other outdoor activities.
"For the 2023 Farm Bill, we request increased funding for VPA, as well as extending grant awards to five years to allow for program continuity."
Finally, Doramus requested continued funding for the regional conservation partnership programs. This resonated with Stabanow, who advocated the programs in the 2014 farm bill.
"In Arkansas, we are delivering a new open forest RCPP in south Arkansas and north Louisiana," Doramus said. "This program will reduce the threat of wildfire and will improve habitat for ground nesting birds opening up overly dense forest by using thinning and prescribed fire."
That theme dovetailed with McAlpine's presentation, which also emphasized prescribed burning and forest thinning. McAlpine spoke from the perspective of forest health and marketable timber.
Doramus's presentation also dovetailed with James's rice agriculture presentation. James presented one sobering statistic that bodes badly for waterfowl hunting in Arkansas. She said that USA Rice Sustainability Committee projects a 27% decrease in the amount of acreage devoted to rice production in 2023. The amount of acreage would drop from about 3 million acres to about 2.2 million acres.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount of rice acreage in Arkansas decreased 5%-15% from 2020-21, depending on the category.
Because of changes in harvesting schedules and increased efficiency in rice harvesting equipment, the amount of rice available for ducks in the fall is already so small that it verges on being inconsequential. Any reduction in acreage will accompany a parallel reduction in actual waste grain for ducks, which could jeopardize Arkansas's position as a destination for migrating waterfowl in the fall and winter.