The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) gives agricultural producers financial and technical help with conserving and improving soil, water, air, energy, and plant and animal life on agricultural lands. Under the CSP, producers enter into five-year contracts (in some cases, those contracts may be extended for an additional five years) with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to undertake various conservation measures--such as enhancing wildlife habitats or renovating windbreaks--in exchange for annual payments. For every acre enrolled in the CSP, a producer receives compensation for carrying out and maintaining new conservation activities and for improving, maintaining, and managing existing conservation practices. Current law limits new enrollment in the CSP to 12.769 million acres per year, at an average cost of $18 per acre.
This option would prohibit new enrollments in the Conservation Stewardship Program beginning in 2012. Land currently enrolled in the CSP would be eligible to continue to receive payments until the contract expired. By the Congressional Budget Office's estimates, this change would reduce spending by about $2 billion over 5 years and by almost $11 billion over 10 years.
One argument for phasing out the CSP is that some provisions of the program limit its effectiveness. For example, paying producers for conservation practices they have already adopted does not enhance the nation's conservation efforts. The criteria used by USDA to determine whether improvements in existing conservation practices have been made are not clear, and the absence of such objective measurements could result in higher payments than necessary to encourage adoption of new conservation measures.
An argument in favor of continuing the CSP is that it may be a way to support agriculture that provides more environmental benefits than traditional crop-based subsidies do. Conservation practices often impose significant up-front costs, and those expenditures can reduce the net economic output of agricultural land; CSP payments help offset those costs.