WASHINGTON, D.C. -- World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton League of America today called on the USDA to take bold action to reform the federal crop insurance and disaster programs to eliminate taxpayer subsidies that encourage the destruction of threatened grasslands.

As part of the 2008 Farm Bill, governors of five Great Plains and Upper Midwestern states were given the opportunity to opt-in to a "Sodsaver" program, which makes newly plowed native grassland areas ineligible for Crop Insurance or disaster payments. A target date of Feb. 15, 2009 was set for states to take formal action. To date, not a single state has done so, highlighting the need for the federal government to make the program mandatory, said officials from WWF, National Wildlife Federation and the Izaak Walton League.

"The vital Sodsaver provision, which could potentially save millions of acres of ecologically fragile prairielands from conversion to cropland, may never be implemented," said Gina DeFerrari, the senior policy advisor to WWF's Northern Great Plains Program. "The fact that no state has yet taken the requisite steps to opt-in to the program suggests that this voluntary approach won't work. To stop the illogical practice of subsidizing the destruction of some of the world's most biologically diverse and threatened grasslands, the Sodsaver provision must be strengthened and made mandatory."

The Sodsaver provision renders crops newly planted on unbroken native grasslands ineligible for certain insurance payouts for five years. The provision applies to the "Prairie Pothole National Priority Area" which consists of specific counties within Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

"While the measure does not prohibit the agriculture industry and landowners from planting commodities, it does remove the perverse government-funded incentives to plow up land with low crop yield potential just to get an insurance payout," said Julie Sibbing, director of global warming, agriculture and wildlife at the National Wildlife Federation. "According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report, the U.S. lost 25 million acres of grasslands between 1982 and 2003, largely as a result of Farm Bill commodity subsidies the like the crop insurance program. For both the protection of threatened prairielands and federal taxpayers, this practice must stop."

"The Sodsaver provision was carefully designed to protect natural grasslands, but it is just as much about fairness in farm country," said Brad Redlin of the Izaak Walton League of America. "One of the greatest needs for Sodsaver is just to give responsible farmers and grass-based livestock producers a fair shot against their neighbors who are using the taxpayer-provided payments to out-bid them for land."

Conservationists and taxpayer watchdog groups alike hailed the inclusion of the Sodsaver provision in the 2008 Farm Bill as passed by both the House and Senate. By the time the bill reached the President's desk, however, the provision was weakened and structured as a voluntary, regional program. USDA set a recommended deadline of February 15 for governors to opt-in so that insured producers can make timely and appropriate insurance decisions with respect to their farming operations. To date, none has done so. Though the USDA deadline has passed, states can still technically opt in.

"We continue to encourage the governors to opt-in," said DeFerrari. "But it's abundantly clear that if the goal of curtailing federal subsidies that are fueling the loss of native grassland is to be realized, the program simply must be made mandatory."

WWF is the world's leading conservation organization, working in 100 countries for nearly half a century. With the support of almost 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat climate change.

National Wildlife Federation is America's conservation organization inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children's future.

Founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League of America protects America's outdoors through community-based conservation, education, and the promotion of outdoor recreation.

SOURCE: World Wildlife Fund via Business Wire.