Successful conservation program turns 25 with uncertainty and hope

Story by Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
December 29, 2010
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MILWAUKEE — One of America’s landmark conservation programs turned 25 last week.

In a sign of the times, it was an anniversary marked by as much uncertainty as hope.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been hailed as the nation’s most important and successful program of its kind, protecting water quality and soils, and creating habitat for a diverse mix of wildlife.

It was signed into law Dec. 23, 1985, by President Ronald Reagan.

The voluntary program allows farmers, ranchers and other landowners to use their environmentally sensitive land for conservation benefits. As a result, CRP protects millions of acres of America’s topsoil from erosion and provides benefits to water quality and wildlife.

“(CRP) is also critically important to the economy of rural America and our nation’s outdoor traditions,” said Dave Nomsen, vice president of government affairs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “But its future is far from guaranteed.”

Landowners receive payments — about $2 billion annually — through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in the program.

About 31 million acres are enrolled nationally, down from 38 million in 2007.

The 2008 Farm Bill capped the program at 32 million acres.

CRP acres are found in nearly every state. Texas leads with 3.4 million acres, followed by Montana (2.9), Kansas (2.7) and North Dakota (2.6).

Wisconsin has seen its CRP acres dwindle from a high of 700,000 in the mid-1990s to the present level of fewer than 500,000.

The program has proven particularly beneficial to upland birds and waterfowl.

“The CRP is critical for maintaining waterfowl populations and our rich waterfowl hunting traditions,” said Dale Hall, Ducks Unlimited’s chief executive officer.

According to researchers at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, land in the nation’s prairie pothole region produces 30 percent more ducks when enrolled in CRP.

In addition, each year CRP helps improve water quality by reducing erosion by nearly 450 million tons, sediment by more than 215 million tons, nitrogen by more than 600 million pounds and phosphorus by more than 120 million pounds.

Despite its history of conservation success, the program faces threats from budget constraints, ethanol demand and high crop and land prices.

With corn and other grain prices at high levels, farmers are more prone to plow and plant as many acres as possible, even on marginal agricultural land historically enrolled in CRP.

The program must be reauthorized by Congress in the 2012 federal Farm Bill to continue.

Also on the near horizon: 11 million acres expire over the next two years and no general sign-up has been announced.

Supporters of the program can only speculate what the newly-elected Congress will do. Most would consider it a success to keep the program at its current level.

“We need to keep CRP acreage at that 32-million cap, especially considering the millions of acres that were lost in the last farm bill,” said John Devney, senior vice president of Delta Waterfowl.

Paul A. Smith

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