Naked City

Funding Farms

Seventeen Texas conservation groups pleaded last week with two key Texas lawmakers on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee to boost funding for habitat preservation. In a March 12 letter to Reps. Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, and Charles Stenholm, D-Abilene, the groups requested the House's version of this year's Farm Bill to increase conservation funding from $3.3 billion to $4.4 billion, matching the Senate's approved allotment. Combest and Stenholm are the two top-ranking members of the ag committee.

Programs to be funded would enable ranchers and farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive lands that they own, allow for the restoration of wildlife habitat, wetlands, and grasslands, and reduce soil erosion. Groups that signed the letter -- including the Save Barton Creek Association and other usual suspects, but also the Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas -- say that such set-asides are popular with landowners. Lack of adequate funding, however, has caused the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture to turn away many farmers and ranchers seeking assistance.

"Farmers and ranchers in Texas are facing the nation's biggest backlog when they seek USDA conservation assistance to help wildlife, water, and the environment," said Kirby Brown of the Texas Wildlife Association. "Representatives Combest and Stenholm will be in a position to make sure USDA rewards, rather than turns away, these stewards when they offer to help meet our conservation and environmental challenges."

However, there are indications the letter might fall on deaf eyes, so to speak. Combest and Stenholm have some of the worst environmental records in the House, according to the League of Conservation Voters, which issues an annual Environmental Scorecard (

) that rates congressional reps on their green record. In 2001, both reps voted pro-environment only 14% of the time. Furthermore, both rejected a proposed amendment to include $5.6 billion in conservation funding in the Farm Bill back in October.

While Combest had not returned calls at press time, a spokesman for Stenholm said the conservation letter was one of many that he had to sort through before a final compromise bill could be reached.

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