It’s not so much what it says but what it doesn’t say—and the 2020 President’s Budget, released on March 10, 2019, has little to say about natural resources conservation.
The 2020 Budget proposes $20.8 billion for USDA, a $3.6 billion decrease from the 2019 estimate (including changes in mandatory programs and receipts). Funding cuts are proposed for all non-defense agencies.
The budget proposes a reduction of $247 million for natural resources conservation, largely from Conservation Technical Assistance. Despite growing awareness of weather-induced risks to agriculture and rural America, the budget also eliminates funding for watershed programs aimed at helping individuals and communities manage water supplies or mitigate flooding. The budget tries to mask these cuts to technical service to farmers and ranchers by including Farm Bill technical assistance funding, giving the illusion that resources would increase rather than decline by a very real 25 percent.
The 2020 Budget also outlines 20 proposals for USDA that would cut $61.3 billion over a ten-year period (2020–2029); the proposed conservation reductions would be over $9.8 billion. For example, the 2020 budget proposes eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program and reducing Agricultural Conservation Easement Program funding by $40 million each year. While proposals in the President’s budget rarely gain traction, they do signal administration priorities.
Across the entire 10-year period, proposals affecting crop insurance, conservation programs, and livestock forage program account for nearly 70 percent of the $61.3 billion reduction and sending an unambiguous signal that these are not just low but “no” priorities for the Administration.
At a time when agriculture and rural America are facing natural disasters and other climate-related threats, the President’s 2020 Budget is at best silent and at worst proposes reductions to the very programs that combat and mitigate those challenges.¹ There is no recognition in the 2020 Budget of conservation’s role in helping producers (1) adapt to or mitigate the effects of growing natural challenges to production (floods, drought, invasive species, etc.), or (2) take positive steps to create healthy soil, manage meager water supplies, protect and improve water quality, store and release moisture, or sustain critical habitats.
If there is not a robust agricultural sector powered by a durable, productive natural resource base, few of the 2020 President’s Budget priorities will matter at all. Conservation has a critical role to play in a healthy, productive, and resilient agriculture. The 2020 Budget should reflect that reality.
¹With the exception of the wildland fires priority.