Although recent reports indicate that the new farm bill will provide a $4 billion increase for voluntary farmer conservation programs, there’s more to the conservation policies in the bill than just money. Recent attempts by the conference committee to dramatically weaken the new Sodsaver provision are just one example of the one-step-forward, two-steps-backward approach to conservation the farm bill conference seems to be taking.

The Sodsaver provision was designed to help limit the incentive that subsidy and disaster payments create for farmers to bring new, often environmentally fragile, land into production. The House and Senate versions of the farm bill both contained this new provision, which would have prohibited crop insurance and non-insured disaster payments for production losses to producers in any state who plowed up native grasslands in order to plant crops. This would have also prevented these farmers from receiving regular disaster payments, because farmers must first have crop insurance in order to be eligible for disaster payments.

Unfortunately, the farm bill conference committee is well on its way to ensuring that Sodsaver saves as little sod as possible. The committee is planning to adopt a weakened version of the provision that would only apply to the Prairie Pothole Region, which is primarily located in Canada. The part of the Prairie Pothole Region located in the US encompasses just portions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. This region encompasses just 5 percent of the remaining native grasslands in the US. Farmers everywhere else in the nation could still receive federal subsidies for bringing native grasslands into production.

Even worse, the proposal has an exemption for the two states where Sodsaver is most needed, North Dakota and Montana, unless the governors of those states chose to require compliance (anyone want to take bets on that?). The House and Senate bills initially applied to all farmers in every state who receive crop insurance and non-insured disaster assistance, so this is a major move in the wrong direction.

According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Inventory the nation lost 25 million acres of grasslands between 1982-2003. As I’ve written about here previously, the Government Accountability Office found that this loss has been driven by the availability of disaster payments and other subsidies. North Dakota and Montana alone have lost 171,109 acres — 267 sq. miles — of native sod since 2002.

Now more than ever, the Sodsaver provision is a particularly critical piece of the bill’s Conservation Title. At the behest of Senators Conrad (D-ND) and Baucus (D-MT), the farm bill will include a widely criticized, ill-advised $3.8 billion permanent disaster aid program. In addition to disaster aid incentives, the run-up of Plains states’ crop prices, especially wheat, will encourage more farmers to bring as much new land as possible into production.

Native prairies in the Great Plains are a national treasure that we can not afford to lose. Members of Congress recognized that when they included Sodsaver, without exemptions, in a previous iteration of this farm bill. This shameful backroom attempt to place the narrow financial interest of a few farmers ahead of the nation’s interest in protecting this irreplaceable natural heritage urgently needs to be brought into the light of day.

Update: The farm bill conference committee finalized all but the most controversial provisions of the 2008 farm bill late Thursday night (May 1). If the final bill dodges a veto and becomes law, the new Sodsaver provision will be even more useless than we expected: it will only apply to the Prairie Pothole region, and it will be optional in each of those states — not just Montana and North Dakota.