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Why the Conservation Reserve Program is a Failure

Boondoggle in the Fields

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

The Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, was established in 1985. Designed to keep marginal lands out of Ag production, CRP pays farmers and ranchers to retire acreage from commodity production in exchange for an annual rental fee. In 2007 the cost of the program was $1.8 billion.

With the raising price for commodities like corn and other grains due to the ethanol craze, farmers and ranchers are now crying to have their (CRP) contracts terminated. They are appealing to the Secretary of Agriculture, Ed Schafer, to terminate the contracts due to “national emergency” which they claim is the need to grow more food to reduce consumer prices. Of course, it is really about growing farmer and rancher bank accounts.

Some environmental groups are opposing contract termination, and are trying to keep these lands in the CRP program, for a host of reason, not the least that CRP does reduce soil erosion, improvements in water quality, and provides wildlife habitat.

Allowing farmers and ranchers to opt out of their contracts simply because they can “earn” more money farming the land for its green gold than farming the US Treasury is not a good reason to cancel the CRP contracts.  The attempt to terminate contracts displays one of the greatest weaknesses of the CRP program—its lack of permanence.

CRP benefits are transitory and at a high price–$36 billion so far and counting. It’s time to reconsider its future.

HOW IT WORKS

The CRP pays landowners an annual rental fee to retire land from commodity production and usually requires the planting of some kind of cover vegetation like crested wheatgrass or other plants (the cost of which is also co-shared by taxpayers). During the life of the contract (typically 10-15 years) the farmer/rancher agrees not to plow or graze the enrolled lands. Most of the enrolled acreage is on the Great Plains; eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, North Dakota, Kansas, eastern Colorado are among the regions with the highest CRP acres.

Originally conceived as a means of keeping commodity prices higher by reducing farm output, CRP is now lauded as a conservation program and enjoys support from many environmental groups who see it as one way to tap into the farm bill which is so loaded down with pork that it drips fat. Better to get some conservation value, even if expensive and transitory than none at all, or so the thinking goes.

The conservation values of CRP are exaggerated, and coincidental and accidental to other concerns (like getting money to farmers/ranchers), while the cost is high ($1.8 billion in 2007).

We spend nearly six times more on the CRP annually than the current cost of operating all 500 plus wildlife refuges across the country. Which has more real wildlife value? The refuges, hands down!  For a fraction of what we are paying farmers/ranchers to idle lands we could buy these same lands and add them to our existing national wildlife refuge or national grassland system. Public ownership would provide permanent protection against subdivision, provide public access, and keep these lands in native vegetation, thus reducing erosion—permanently.

No doubt there are some conservation benefits to CRP lands—especially since it covers more than 36 million acres. However, that is like comparing a Walmart parking lot to a golf course. Just because it’s green and has some plants, the golf course is better for wildlife than the pavement. Similarly, a plowed field planted to some row crop like corn is a biological desert—far worse in terms of its biological value than, say, a subdivision (which is not to say that a subdivision is good—just a heck of a lot better than a continuously farmed field of exotic corn or wheat that sprayed with pesticides, loaded down with fertilizers, etc.). Because Ag land is about the least valuable wildlife habitat imaginable, taking any row crop out of production almost guarantees higher wildlife significance.

Furthermore, since enrollment is based upon rancher/farmer needs, not the needs of wildlife, many of the enrolled parcels are small, isolated, often surrounded by other fields in agricultural production. Thus these lands become population sinks drawing in nesting birds, for instance, which are then easily caught by predators who focus their hunting on the small tracts of unplowed land. Some studies on CRP focus on bird nesting, rather than actual recruitment and can exaggerate CRP values as a result. Small parcels are also not much value to larger mammals like pronghorn or elk unless they are adjacent to very large tracts of undeveloped public or private land.

Nevertheless, CRP lands do have significant value for some wildlife. For instance, one study in the Prairie Pot Hole region found that CRP lands were responsible for producing 1.8 million additional grassland birds including sedge wrens, grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels, bobolinks, and westeren meadowlarks. Another study found that CRP contributed to 30 percent increase in five major duck species in the same region.

Still, the bulk of the lands enrolled have little wildlife habitat value, and we could realize equal or more benefits at less cost with a program that focused on buying critical or important wildlife habitat?

LACK OF PERMANENCE

The biggest defect I see in the CRP program, besides its huge cost and its haphazard approach to protecting critical wildlife habitat, is its lack of permanence. At the end of the 10 or 15-year contract, any producer can decide to start plowing the former CRP acreage, completely negating any conservation value that may have been achieved.

Indeed, even without termination of the contracts, the vast majority of CRP lands are, at some point during the contract period, frequently released for livestock grazing and even farming due to “emergencies” like drought, floods, and other reasons used to remove CRP lands from the limited protections offered by the program.

BUYING LAND THE BEST SOLUTION

If we are truly concerned about keeping erosion-prone lands out of production, as well as creating more habitat for wildlife, then we should buy the land. A focused land acquisition program would produce far more long-term conservation benefits than the current lease system.

Acquisition can also permanently remove these lands from potential subdivision, and reduce overall crop acreage thus ensure higher prices for crops produced on non-conservation lands. Finally, the public would also realize guaranteed public access for hiking, hunting, wildlife watching, camping, and so forth. A similar acquisition of marginal farmland in the 1930s helped to create our national grassland system. It’s time to consider a similar program. Perhaps in the end Ag efforts to terminate the CRP contracts can be an opportunity—a chance to implement a real conservation reserve program that buys, rather than rents, highly erodible lands.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer with 34 published books, including Wild Fire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy and Montana, Magnificent Wilderness and, most recently, Thrillcraft: the Environmental Consequences of Motorized Recreation.