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CRP doomsday? A boon to wildlife, this program's future is far from certain.

YOU KNOW THE saying by George Santayana: "Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it."


They're doing it again, all over the Farm Belt, plowing up marginal land to plant marginal crops. More than 25 percent of Conservation Reserve Program acreage has been converted back to row cropland, ignoring the fact those acres were retired because they were unsuited for crops. But the lure of the quick buck, whether it's higher corn prices for ethanol, or a temporary market surge, is too great a temptation to resist.

It happened before with the Soil Bank Program in the late 1950s with 10-year contracts to retire land from production in return for subsidies. But when contracts ran out and grain prices were high, farmers plowed their fields, restoring the same erosive conditions that led to the creation of the Bank.

CRP, with some tweaking, is essentially the same program as the Soil Bank. But the seeds of conservative farm programs took root in the '30s. The Plains states had ripped up native prairie since the turn of the century and it caught up with them when the rain stopped and croplands dried up, known as the "Dirty Thirties." Anyone who has read Timothy Egan's great history of the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time or watched Ken Burns' documentary based on it, knows how dreadful that time was--one dust storm dropped 12 million pounds of Plains dirt ... on Chicago!

Congress created the Soil Conservation Service in 1933 after blowing dirt reached all the way to Washington, D.C., and in 1935 the SCS started paying farmers to idle land. The National Grasslands came into being during this time, and it's estimated the granddaddy of the CRP program cut wind erosion by 65 percent by the late '30s. But long fencerows and windbreaks planted then to halt erosion have been systematically removed to make room for more row crops. Its called "fencerow to fencerow" farming, and it had its main impetus in the '70s under Earl Butz, President Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture, who was a shill for agribusiness.

* ENDURING NATURE There were dust storms in the summer of 2012 when much of the original Dust Bowl suffered drought. They weren't as horrific as those of the '30s, but served as a warning nature cannot be denied, only endured (and, you'd hope, prepared for).

Modern farming has somewhat ameliorated the threat of soil erosion by no-till crops ... but they are made possible by hefty doses of herbicides. I don't think there is as much fall plowing as there once was, but there still is plenty, and what little cover and food remain after harvest gets buried.

To survive critters need food, shelter and cover to raise young. CRP provides all three; cropland provides only food, but is rendered meaningless because without the other two there won't be anything to eat it.

CRP combines to conserve soil by idling iffy land and avoid overproduction and lower crop prices. It's a win-win situation so long as CRP payments are as much or more than price per bushel. Now they aren't, and the land is being assaulted by owners lured by high crop prices, expiration of CRP contracts and a Congress unwilling to support the program.

* POPULATION IMPACT For bird hunters, the shining benefit is more birds to hunt. Not even the most obdurate anti-environmentalist can seriously argue CRP hasn't resulted in a boom in pheasant populations. Anyone who hunts the Dakotas knows that. Ducks in the Prairie Pothole Region have jumped 30 percent since 1992. Pheasants are up 22 percent. And sage grouse, in serious trouble because of oil and gas exploration all over their range, would have declined far more than they have without CRP protection.

In the past five years, nearly 10 million of the 27 million enrolled acres have been jerked out of the program and much of that is in the Dakotas and Montana. Much of the acreage is being used to raise corn for ethanol, a supposedly environment-friendly commodity that, like Frankenstein, has mutated into a horror.

Some 40 percent of all corn now raised in the U.S. is for ethanol. You can't have that huge a demand on production without creating a drag on all other farming Factors--in this case the environmental health of the land itself.

CRP and associated programs are under fire because of the expiration of CRP contracts and the 2013 Farm Bill, which has been whipsawed by politicians. Congress extended the 2008 Farm Bill to Sept. 30, 2013, because it couldn't agree on the new bill. But that doesn't mean the proposals won't take effect for the next live years come September.

The proposed cuts to conservation programs in the Farm Bill are not Draconian, but they aren't good: a drop of 2 million acres in the authorized CRP total, complete abandonment of the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), which expires with the 2012 Farm Bill, cutting funding for the Grassland Reserve Program by 90 percent, a cut of $68 million to the Conservation Stewardship Program, and $12 million cut from the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) that would permanently reduce the mandatory commitment to the program.

Grassland is particularly at-risk because once native prairie is plowed, it's gone forever. In 2007 alone, at least 30,000 acres of native grassland was turned to exposed dirt, according to the USDA. Almost all was in the Pothole region--the Dakotas, Montana, Iowa and Minnesota where most of die nation's ducks originate--and grasslands are vital for nesting and brood rearing.

* LIVING THE DREAM Perhaps the most controversial proposal for Great Plains conservation is the Buffalo Commons, a plan to return 139,000-square miles of the Great Plains to native prairie and reintroduce bison. The proposal would involve Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas. Think about it--rural parts of those states have lost a third of their population in the last century and most of that acreage has fewer than six people per square mile. The Commons idea, at first reviled, has become more popular in recent years but is still a distant dream.

WHIP has been a godsend to states trying to reverse a long term slide in quail habitat and numbers. It provides cost share of up to 75 percent to landowners who want to improve wildlife habitat on their land--obviously a boon to hunters. It originated with the last Farm Bill in 2008 and its emasculation in the next one is symptomatic of how political winds (and concern for the environment) change as often as the weather.

So the Farm Bill dithers in Never-Never Land, plows continue to chew away at CRP acreage and native prairie and wildlife suffers, and, by association, so do upland bird and duck hunters. As are most things, it's cyclic. If we survive our continuing history of land mismanagement, a future generation of bird hunters may experience a boom before the next generation of memory-lapsed non-environmentalists seeks profit over legacy and heads for the plow shed.

"Those who ignore history ..."
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Title Annotation:News & Views; Conservation Reserve Program
Author:Vance, Joel M.
Publication:Gun Dog
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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