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WASHINGTON (AP) – The new farm bill taking shape in Congress has $15 billion slated for conservation, but there is debate over what shape those conservation policies should take.

At stake is the question of whether Congress should put all of that money into existing programs or expand those conservation efforts into new areas, such as restoring grasslands or reducing water pollution from livestock waste.

The House Agriculture Committee is expected to have its version of the farm bill ready by Monday. The panel starts debating final details of the bill Thursday.

Spending on conservation has gone up significantly, from the $1 billion included in the 1985 farm bill to the $3 billion allotted in the 1996 farm bill.

But most of this growth has been earmarked for programs to retire land, such as the Conservation Reserve Program.Other conservation programs have either grown very little or not at all.

The new farm bill, as outlined by House Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, would increase conservation spending by 75 percent over 10 years, to $15 billion. Combest’s proposal directs that money into existing programs.

Wildlife and environmental groups have asked Congress to put more money into the broader conservation efforts that have gotten little attention, a request that has won some followers in both the House and the Senate.

Rollin D. Sparrowe, president of the Wildlife Management Institute, asked the House Agriculture Committee to create a new grassland reserve program.

“Over time, most grasslands and shrublands in the heartland of the US, from Texas to the Canadian border, have been converted to cropland,” Sparrowe has said.

He suggested that Congress write in $20 million a year over the next decade, a total of $200 million, to pay farmers to not plant row crops on existing grasslands. He said the program would benefit more than 300 species of migratory birds that nest in tall grasslands as well as ranchers who depend on open range for grazing.

Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., said ranchers in Wyoming have largely voiced their support for a new grasslands protection measure.

A new grasslands measure was also met with support from Reps. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. Both say their states don’t need to increase CRP acreage.

Rehberg said he opposes expanding CRP in Montana, which leads the nation with 3.5 million acres in reserve, because the state’s rural economy is hurting from so much farm and ranch land being taken out of production.

Farmers who aren’t raising crops and ranchers who aren’t grazing cattle also aren’t buying seed, feed or fuel in town, Rehberg said.

“It seems to me that we’ve gone as far as we should go for CRP,” he said.

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