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Can we save CRP?

Without your help, this important agricultural conservation program faces an uncertain future
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By Scott McLeod

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to restore perennial grass cover on marginal cropland under 10- or 15-year contracts, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary. More than 31 million acres are currently enrolled in this program, benefiting many species of wildlife, especially waterfowl. In the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the United States, 6.8 million acres are currently enrolled in CRP, providing crucial nesting habitat for ducks and other grassland-nesting birds. 

CRP was born during the mid-1980s, when the farm sector of the U.S. economy was under great stress. Overproduction caused grain stocks to pile up, crop prices to plummet, and farm income to decline to record lows. Existing government agricultural programs encouraged farmers to cultivate fragile, highly erodible lands, resulting in surplus crop production and excessive soil erosion. To help address these issues, Congress established CRP in the Food Security Act of 1985. Initial CRP enrollment was authorized not to exceed 45 million acres. CRP's main goal was reducing soil erosion on highly erodible land. Secondary goals included protecting groundwater and surface water, safeguarding the nation's capacity to produce food and fiber, and providing income support to producers by curbing the production of surplus commodities.

In 1990, more than 32.5 million acres were enrolled in CRP nationwide. Nearly one-third of these acres were located in the prairie states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa, providing vital habitat for breeding waterfowl and other wildlife. Congress reauthorized CRP in the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act of 1990, but appropriations legislation and budget reconciliation measures reduced authorized CRP enrollment to 38 million acres. 

As wet weather returned to the U.S. prairies during the mid-1990s, duck production on CRP lands soared, adding millions of additional birds to the fall flight. CRP was reauthorized in the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, and enrollment was authorized at 36.4 million acres. In addition, for the first time wildlife conservation was given equal status with improving soil and water quality as one of the program's stated goals. 

Prior to passage of the 1996 Farm Bill, the PPR was included as a National Conservation Priority Area in CRP, making eligibility for enrollment in the program easier for landowners in this region. In addition, the USDA Farm Services Agency (FSA) modified CRP rules to allow landowners to enroll small acreages like buffer strips through a continuous enrollment process. A number of these practices are now specifically targeted for creating habitat for wildlife, including nesting ducks.

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