Not all government programs need cutting

  • Stephanie Paige Ogburn


For much of our country's history, chopping down forests and plowing up prairie were considered patriotic acts. Farming, which rid the earth of so-called non-productive land and transformed it into fields of grain, was a necessary nation-building activity. It took a few decades, but we finally realized that in our rush to control nature, we misused marginal lands. One result was the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

As we slowly learned that not all land could sustain farming, we also discovered that some non-plowed land could have significant ecological benefits. Recognizing that lesson, a 26-year-old federal effort called the Conservation Reserve Program has been encouraging farmers to set aside their most sensitive lands, protecting them from the plow and planting them with native species. This huge patchwork of un-plowed land now spreads over 34 million acres, offering safe havens for sage grouse to nest and deer to raise fawns. It also stops 450 million tons of soil from eroding each year. The farmers who participate sign 10- or 15-year contracts to set aside blocks of farmland in exchange for payment from the government.

These days, however, the Conservation Reserve Program and other little-known but significant conservation programs face severe cuts. The 2012 Farm Bill, which funds subsidies for rural development, hits Congress next year and might well slash conservation funding. Throw in the impact of the current record-high commodity prices -- which erodes support for any program that takes land out of production -- and the Conservation Reserve Program, with its yearly price tag of $1.7 billion, faces many threats.

It is also true that though the farmland retirement program has been a huge conservation boon, it is not universally loved by those who participate in it. Farmers criticize its low payment rates, which are based on rents for cropland at the beginning of a contract period. For example, a farmer in North Dakota who signed up and set aside acreage back in 2001 for $35 at an acre, might now be able to farm that land and make $200 an acre growing corn.

Idaho farmer Bill Flory, former chairman of the state's Soil and Water Conservation Commission, also believes that the Conservation Reserve Program, which can enroll up to 25 percent of a county's farmland, harms the economy: "There's been some counties where basically, production agriculture has been retired from the area ... and all the related infrastructure has left."

Still another downside is the cost to conservation when lands flow in and out of production in 10-year increments. Whenever crop prices go up, farmers tend to opt out of the program when their contract comes due. Last year, 4.4 million acres weren't renewed.

Yet wildlife and hunting groups laud the conservation program's success in providing habitat for game birds such as pheasants and ducks, as well as for declining grassland species like the sage grouse and prairie chicken.

Third-generation rancher Tony Malmberg, who raises grass-fed beef in Oregon, thinks the program wastes good land. He wants farmers to be allowed to farm reserved acres, as long as they commit to conservation practices. "The 10 years of payments (should) buy a conservation easement, so this land will be managed sustainably going into the future," Malmberg says.

A recent effort shares this approach. Called the federal Conservation Stewardship Program, it pays farmers who implement conservation measures on working lands. It took off after the 2008 Farm Bill, and this July it surpassed the Conservation Reserve Program in size, at 37 million acres.  But the stewardship program isn't immune from the cutting bonanza either.

For now, Groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation are running some of the primary defense on the Conservation Reserve Program. They say they might be able to accept a slimming of the program's budget, as long as it's done with an eye towards maximizing habitat for sensitive species. Jim Ringelman, who directs conservation programs in the Dakotas and Montana for the duck hunter organization, says radical cuts are shortsighted, and the ramifications could last long after the current budget crisis.

"CRP has been the most important conservation program in the history of the world," Ringelman says. "There's nothing that compares to it. If we are foolish enough to walk away from it because we think corn prices are going to stay high forever, then we are going to pay the price."

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (, where she is the magazine's online editor.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

John Smith
John Smith
Oct 13, 2011 08:31 PM
While I agree some programs are very much needed for both conservation and rural economics, I don't believe the Conservation Reserve Program is one of them. Are there biological benefits you bet, but what the program says is agriculture and wildlife conservation are not compatible, which is not true and is a mistake in my belief. We need to support working lands conservation programs that support sound conservation practices where we are making a living off of the land. CRP is not a working lands program, why not enroll highly erodible land and important wildlife habitat, but allow sustainable ranching practices like grazing and haying, increase the length of the agreements, and reduce the payments. Tax payers are requiring us to come up with ways to decrease federal funding while still meeting our conservatoin objectives, we can do it, but not by saying ag. is bad and lets just pay landowners to do nothing with their land. thanks for the article.
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Oct 13, 2011 09:35 PM
Hi John, thanks for your comment.

Well, as you say this program is not a working lands program, but there are many that say some working lands that are currently classified agricultural should not be farmed because of their sensitivity and erosion potential. I know that in upcoming Farm Bill talks some of the wildlife advocates may be more willing to "give" on grazing, although haying is a different matter because it is usually more disruptive to nesting birds.

Generally I do agree with your assessment, though, that it would make more sense, as Tony Malmberg suggests, to put permanent easements on highly sensitive land and do a lot more to encourage stewardship on working lands. However, CRP has been very beneficial to wildlife, though, and it should not be thrown out whole hog, but there is room for improving how it is implemented and maybe making it more cost effective, through perhaps a combination of a permanent easement plan and grazing on some CRP acres. The devil, of course, will be in the details of figuring out something like this.

- Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.
Bruce Smithhammer
Bruce Smithhammer Subscriber
Oct 16, 2011 09:28 AM
I would disagree that the CRP program implies that wildlife and agriculture are incompatible. But it is undeniable, in my opinion, that more species benefit from a patchwork of agriculture and native grasses, etc. than a vast monoculture, or from agriculture practiced in areas that aren't appropriate for it and/or highly erodible.

One of the primary reasons that agricultural areas may support a variety of species is because in addition to the feed opportunities provided by crops, they also provide a variety of bordering habitat for cover, etc. The difference in this is starkly obvious when you see areas where rural agriculture is still being practiced versus large-scale industrial farming.

While the CRP program may not be perfect (show me a government program that is), it's benefits have been many - for soil preservation, for watersheds and for a variety of species. And there are many other examples of government funding being used for nominal benefit that I would rather see being cut than the CRP.
Greg Nolan
Greg Nolan
Oct 17, 2011 08:53 PM
I guess I am an oddity. I support the OWS movement and my government. I appreciate government programs from the national parks to daily mail. I love the CRP program. A couple decades ago I had a friend and a wonderful hunting dog. Well the wonderful friend took me and my wonderful hunting dog to Western Kansas to hunt pheasant (I was not a hunter). I fell in love with hunting dogs coursing a field of grass; wonderfull, beautiful, waving fields of grass. Grass filled with pheasant, hawks, coyotes, bobcats, deer, mice and wilderness in expanses of corn, wheat and milo. Yup, I support the CRP program, taxes, and the wonder of America.
Will Jaremko-Wright
Will Jaremko-Wright
Oct 23, 2011 10:18 AM
It's also important to note that as 'protected areas' go for the conservation movement, you cannot always buy land, programs like CRP are great because it enrolls large amounts of acres with minimal work to the landowner, compared to something like a conservation easement, which is costly to the landowner to get the ball rolling (No one I've known has had a conservation easement placed on their land without some sort of federal grant). Conservation groups, or federal/state agencies cannot always buy land (and that's probably not a good idea anyway). But a CRP, after the 10 or 15 years of tall grass, and thus the soil building that goes with it, could be ready to be utilized again for a time, then enrolled in a CRP again. This is a long-term type deal, but something that retains power to the landowner, instead of the fed government. It would be great if grazing was allowed on CRPs, but I don't know about haying, that gives too many temptations to grow non-native grasses with a higher nutrient composition. Obviously, in my opinion. Good coverage of CRP issues, it's a big deal.