PENQUIS AREA - Taking advantage of the President's Day recess of Congress, leaders of the Maine Association of Conservation Districts met with U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe in the senator's Portland office. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss strategies which would enhance Maine's position as a recipient of federal funds under the conservation title of the 2002 Farm Bill.
The Conservation District leadership and Maine Commissioner of Agriculture Bob Spear had met with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Bruce Knight on this subject in December. Senators Snowe and Susan Collins have since both written to Chief Knight about Maine's funding problems. The meeting February 16 in Portland evidenced Senator Snowe's continued disappointment that Maine's funding, while significantly improved, remains far below that accorded other states.
Steve Hobart, Piscataquis County, the current president of the Maine Association of Conservation Districts (MACD), reported to Senator Snowe on his most recent conversation with Chief Knight, which took place at the Conservation Districts' national meeting in Hawaii last month. At that time, Chief Knight maintained that USDA has now met the "Regional Equity" language of the Farm Bill, under which each state should receive $12 million annually in conservation funds. Hobart noted that this represents approximately a doubling of funds received previously, and he thanked Senator Snowe on helping to achieve this level. Senator Snowe noted that this promise of "Regional Equity" was one of the reasons that she had voted in support of the Farm Bill.
As Bill Bell, the executive director of MACD pointed out, however, this "equity" remains inequitable when Maine, with vastly more farmland, receives the same level of funding as the other New England states, which have much less farmland. He noted that Maine remains, on a per-dollar per acre of farmland basis, at the very bottom of USDA's conservation allocations.
Senator Snowe agreed that treating unequal situations equally is not "equal", and asked for specifics. David Bell, who is executive director of the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine, outlined the need for sustainable water use projects Down East. Marianne Hubert, Kennebec County, noted that her Soil and Water Conservation District has a backlog of 150 farmers awaiting USDA assistance with conservation projects. Tony Carroll noted that his York County District has such a backlog that farmers have stopped applying for cost-share funds.
Senator Snowe and the delegation discussed various strategies by which USDA could be approached, and agreed to a specific action plan, about which her staff has already contacted the Maine Association of Conservation Districts for additional input. Snowe's staff and Bill Bell agreed that MACD would review the budget allocated to NRCS. Then, at the Portsmouth Leadership Conference on March 4 and 5, they will seek to find themes common to other New England states.
Finally, they will use this information to present a proposed plan of action with a broad base of support to Senator Snowe during the NACD Legislative Conference in Washington DC later this month.