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 (hcn.org), where she is the magazine's online editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...