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Dems: Environmental protections needed for economic growth

April 24, 2012
In The News

La Crosse Tribune

By Chris Hubbach 
‘Keeping the focus on jobs, Democratic lawmakers from western Wisconsin called for stiffer environmental protections Monday, a day after the 42nd celebration of Earth Day.
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind outlined an agenda to preserve conservation programs, increase pollution monitoring, protect national wildlife refuges and parks, and create programs to introduce kids to the outdoors.
Kind, joined in Riverside Park by state Sen. Jennifer Shilling and Rep. Jill Billings, hailed the event started by former U.S. senator and Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson.
“It’s a reminder that we all need to do our part to be good stewards of the natural resources that we’re blessed with here in western Wisconsin,” Kind said. “If we do it the right way, this could lead to a forward looking vision for economic growth and job creation.”
Kind cited a report by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation that claims outdoor recreation indirectly supports some 130,000 jobs in Wisconsin and brings in close to $10 billion in revenue.
“This is some pretty valuable stuff that we’re … responsible to protect,” Kind said, gesturing at the Mississippi River. “With that blessing comes a responsibility of making sure it is preserved and protected for future generations so that we have a good job climate that can lead to growth of businesses and outdoor recreation.”
Shilling, who has come under fire from her Republican challenger for opposing a mining deregulation bill that supporters claimed would create thousands of jobs, echoed Kind’s sentiment that environmental protection and job creation are not mutually exclusive.
“We can have responsible job creation here in the state with responsible environmental protections in place as well,” she said. “A healthy, safe environment is good for business, good for tourism and good for the state.”
Conservation in the crosshairs
At the center of Kind’s agenda is the farm bill, a package of legislation that will dictate agriculture and food policy for the next five years.
“I hope this next farm bill is the great conservation bill of the 21st century,” Kind said.
But the $500 billion bill released last week by the Senate’s agricultural committee fell far short of that, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which said the proposed bill does “more harm than good.”
“Essentially we’re cutting conservation to fund what amounts to income guarantees for large farm businesses,” said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at EWG.
The current five-year farm bill expires at the end of September. The Senate committee’s plan to redesign safety nets that help farmers weather bad times consolidates conservation programs and takes several steps, such as stopping lottery winners from getting assistance, to make the food stamp program more accountable.
Of $23 billion in deficit reduction projected over next 10 years, $4 billion comes from food stamps.
But before getting a bill to the president, lawmakers must satisfy multiple constituents with different agendas — Northern corn growers, Southern cotton farmers, insurance companies, banks, nutrition groups and environmentalists. Most difficult will be narrowing the gap between the Democratic Senate and House Republicans taking aim at the food stamp program that accounts for more than three-quarters of the bill’s spending.
The Congressional Budget Office says that at the current spending pace the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, would spend about $400 billion over the five-year life of a farm bill enacted this year. Crop insurance subsidies would average about $9 billion a year, commodity subsidies $6.6 billion and farm conservation programs $6.5 billion.
Despite budgetary pressures, Kind said it’s imperative to preserve the conservation programs.
“Deep cuts to conservation when commodity prices are so high and highly erodable land is being brought back into production is a recipe for more damage to the watershed area in our river basin. That’s what we need to be careful about.”
River monitoring
Kind also said he plans to re-introduce a bill to enhance monitoring of agricultural pollution in the Upper Mississippi River basin.
While the details aren’t clear, the bill would allow the U.S. Geological Survey to better track fertilizer and sediment in the river. These pollutants are often washed off farm fields throughout the watershed.
Tracing the sources into tributary rivers and streams would make it possible to target conservation spending to get the most bang for the buck, said Mike Jawson, director of the Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center on French Island, which would carry out the research.