New enrollment guidelines will provide valuable nesting habitat, but significant challenges remain.
By now, most waterfowlers know of the valuable nesting habitat provided by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Under CRP, the federal government provides farmers with annual payments over a 10- or 15-year contract period, and in exchange, landowners restore grass and, in some cases, wetlands on marginal cropland. This restored habitat provides ideal nesting conditions for ducks. In fact, biologists estimate that more than 2 million additional ducks per year are hatched as a result of CRP in the Dakotas and Montana alone.
Unfortunately, 79 percent of the existing CRP acres in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) are set to expire during 2007-2010. In August, this scenario brightened a bit when John Johnson, the Farm Service Agency's (FSA) deputy administrator for farm programs, announced that FSA is implementing a new practice, the Duck Nesting Habitat Initiative, specifically designed to benefit nesting waterfowl. Johnson made the announcement at the fourth annual North American Duck Symposium, a scientific conference cohosted by Ducks Unlimited.
The beauty of the Duck Nesting Habitat Initiative is that it focuses on cropland containing high densities of wetlands, and then further prioritizes those lands in areas with more than 25 breeding duck pairs per square mile. Most importantly, it allows landowners in these high duck density areas to enroll up to 10 acres of upland for every acre of wetland, as opposed to the four upland acres for one wetland acre ratio now required. Few farmers could qualify under the 4 to 1 ratio, so rather than "cookie-cutter" out their wetlands, they simply opted not to enroll in CRP. At the urging of DU and other partners, the FSA reconsidered their criteria and created the new practice.
This change will create a pool of 2.5 million eligible acres with enrollment currently limited to the first 100,000 acres offered. The PPR of the Dakotas has been allotted 80,000 acres while the PPR of Montana, Minnesota, and Iowa will enroll the balance of 20,000 acres. The new practice is expected to produce 60,000 additional ducks annually. Although these new acres are a step in the right direction, they pale in comparison to the 8.1 million acres of CRP currently on the landscape across the PPR, a large proportion of which may disappear when existing contracts expire. What can keep this sea of CRP grassland from disappearing?
Testimonials from the heartland will help. "CRP has benefited my operation by providing a stable income off the more marginal land I have," said Dennis Clark, a rancher and farmer from Woodworth, North Dakota. "During the drought years we've had, it saved my cow herd. It saved my neighbor's cow herd. I would continue the CRP program. I would enroll more land in it next time, if it's allowed."
This sentiment toward CRP is pervasive throughout much of the country. But given the current federal budget, it will take more than good feelings to retain CRP in the next Farm Bill. That's where a new study by the University of Tennessee (UT) may help save the day. A group of conservation and commodity organizations recently commissioned UT's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC) to examine the economic consequences of eliminating the Conservation Reserve Program. The results were staggering, even to those who have a longstanding appreciation of the economic benefits of CRP. According to the study, the full elimination of CRP would save the government more than $12 billion in CRP payments between 2007 and 2015. However, the additional crops that would be produced on former CRP acres would increase supply and thereby lower commodity prices, requiring an increase of $45 billion in payments to farmers. On balance, the APAC study concluded that U.S. taxpayers would end up saving $33 billion by retaining CRP.
But it's not just taxpayers that would benefit from keeping CRP grasslands on the landscape. In addition to the 2.2 million ducks hatched per year, CRP produces 15 million pheasants annually, along with myriad other wildlife. It also reduces annual cropland soil loss by about 450 million tons—enough to fill 37.5 million dump trucks. Nationwide, CRP has protected 2 million acres of wetlands and 170,000 miles of streams.
If retaining the current CRP acres saves money and provides all these benefits, does it stand to reason that more CRP could result in even greater returns? According to the APAC study, the answer is yes. By increasing CRP from its current 34.7 million acres to the statutory limit of 39.2 million acres, researchers concluded that by 2015 net farm income would increase by $600 million and the federal treasury would realize $6.3 billion in savings. Increase CRP to 45 million acres during 2006-2015, and farmers gain $1.7 billion while U.S. taxpayers save $12.7 billion.
Clearly, CRP is working for ducks, for landowners, and for taxpayers. But we cannot be complacent and assume that renewal or expansion of CRP is a sure bet. It will take the collective voices of DU supporters and all who appreciate wildlife to ensure that this remarkable program remains alive and well in the next Farm Bill. The entire UT APAC report on CRP can be viewed at: http://apacweb.ag.utk.edu/ppap/APAC-CRP-Report.pdf.
Dr. Jim Ringelman is director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains Office in Bismarck, North Dakota.