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Idle Lands Work For Nature The Federal Conservation Reserve Program Makes Common Ground For Unlikely Allies

Sun., June 11, 1995

(From Outdoors & Travel section, Sunday, June 18, 1995:) The Outdoors story on the Conservation Reserve Program last Sunday incorrectly reported the amount farmers enrolled in the federal program receive in payments. The payments average about $40 a year.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program is the apple pie of farm subsidies.

You have to hunt for someone who doesn’t like it.

The benefits of CRP go far beyond the farm to reduce dust in the air of downwind cities, purify water running into streams and boost wildlife species ranging from meadowlarks to mule deer.

Yet Congress, in its cost-cutting frenzy, appears poised to dump most of the program.

CRP pays farmers to take some of their ground out of production, replant it with grasses and other vegetation and leave it idle. The program is designed to prevent a glut of grain on the market and conserve soil on highly erodible lands.

Since authorized by the 1985 Farm Bill, CRP has anchored precious soil on 36.5 million acres of the country’s farmland. As a by-product, these lands have created prime wildlife habitats.

The program is backed by such unlikely bedfellows as the National Audubon Society and the National Rifle Association, the Washington Environmental Council and the Farm Bureau.

“CRP has virtually no downside,” said Baird Miller, Washington State University agricultural researcher. “That’s what’s amazing.”

The 1995 Farm Bill will be a centerpiece in controversial national budget negotiations this summer. CRP contracts begin expiring next year. The Clinton administration has proposed continuing CRP for another 10 years. But proposals to reduce CRP acreage by at least 50 percent already have emerged in Senate budget discussions.

The Congressional Budget Office has suggested chopping the set-aside nationwide from 36.5 million acres to 15 million.

As a member of agriculture committees dealing with appropriations, Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., will have something to say about CRP, said Ken Lasias, the congressman’s press secretary. “He’s a supporter of CRP,” Lasias said. “He knows that it’s good for the environment and that freeing up millions of acres for crops could cause a harsh drop on prices of some commodities. But the numbers are still being batted around.”

Meanwhile, wildlife biologists are as uneasy as spiders watching from a web as kids approach with sticks.

The federal contracts were signed over several years, so Washington’s 1.04 million acres of CRP wouldn’t all be lost at the same time.

Within a few years, however, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates wildlife-sustaining sod will be broken on 23 million acres of CRP across the nation if the program is abolished.

“It would be a tragedy to loose all the good we’ve gained from this 10-year investment,” said John Andrews, biologist and habitat specialist for the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department.

Paying the nation’s farmers 50 percent of the costs of seeding croplands to grass plus a monthly fee averaging $40 an acre has produced otherwise unachievable benefits for wildlife, Andrews said.

Here’s a Western sampling:

A steep 10-year decline of lark buntings in North Dakota was reversed to a dramatic recovery in 1985 with the beginning of CRP, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research shows. North Dakota has 3.2 million acres in CRP, second in the nation to Texas’s 4.1 million acres.

A study cited by the National Audubon Society found an average of two songbird species will nest in rowcrops compared with nine species in adjacent CRP.

In South Dakota’s Jones County, increased hunting associated with CRP produced about $1 million in economic activity in the first six days of the 1993 pheasant season, says St. Paul-based Pheasants Forever.

Three million additional ducks were produced last year in the Dakotas and Montana because of CRP, the Fish and Wildlife Service says.

In Montana - the fourth-ranking CRP state with 2.8 million acres enrolled - statewide pheasant harvests have tripled under the program, state wildlife officials report. In Colorado and Oregon, forage on CRP lands has substantially reduced winter wildlife damage to agricultural fields and haystacks, says the Washington, D.C.-based Wildlife Management Institute.

CRP is the primary reason Idaho’s sharp-tailed grouse have rebounded from a marginal population to one that allowed a hunter harvest of 10,000 birds last fall.

Without CRP, Idaho sharptails grouse might have been on the endangered species list, said Tom Hemker, Idaho Fish and Game Department upland game manager But most of CRP’s benefits have gone undocumented.

“It’s obvious that CRP has made a tremendous difference in the air quality for Spokane by holding down dust that blows in from Adams and Lincoln county crop lands,” said Jerry Rouse, Natural Resources Conservation Service range conservationist. “But we haven’t had the funding to document it. Very little research has been done on the general benefits and cost savings to society.”

For instance, no group has compiled the nation’s fuel savings from keeping tractors off the land, or documented whether nature has benefited from eliminating pesticides and herbicides on 36.5 million acres a year.

“What we do know is significant enough, it seems,” Rouse said. “Water erosion on crop fields in the southeast portion of the Palouse averages 15 tons of soil per acre a year. The erosion on CRP lands was reduced to 1 ton per acre, and that doesn’t even account for the savings in erosion caused by wind.”

Clinton Miller, a senior member of a family farm and ranch spanning Spokane and Whitman counties, said there’s a point to which research is unnecessary.

“You can just see how much clearer the water is going from our CRP land into Rock Lake,” he said.

At 59, Miller has been raising crops on the family’s sprawling Palouse farm for 40 years. Yet he beams with the pride of a state-fair ribbon winner as he drives through rows of foot-high trees among his wheat fields.

The Millers went beyond the basic CRP and contracted under the government’s special “wildlife CRP” provisions. In exchange for allowing trees and shrubs to be planted in addition to grasses, the Millers get a higher payment per acre and an additional five years on the normal 10-year CRP contract.

The project, planted in 1992, involves 157,000 trees and shrubs strategically planted on nearly 1,000 acres of swales and steep ridges in the Palouse hills.

“This is going to be something special for wildlife,” Miller said without acknowledging that it already is.

After driving through miles of sprouting wheat without seeing a critter, deer began to scatter and hawks were soaring as he approached the lush, established grasses on the CRP land.

“They love it here,” he said, pointing to a pair of mule deer from a high point of former crop land he calls Billy Goat Ridge. “With CRP we can just leave the land be and still pay the debt load.”

Not far away, seeded wheat had washed off the lee of the classic dune-like hills in the Palouse. The slope was bare dirt streaked with thousands of gullies carved by recent rains.

“That land should never have been farmed because it’s too steep,” Miller said. But previous government farm programs and larger modern equipment have made it impractical for farmers to leave those Palouse “eyebrows” untilled.

“The only thing I fear in this CRP is fire,” Miller said, returning attention to his tree plantings.

“Fire,” he repeated, wincing and choking slightly at the sound of the word. “I’d be absolutely sick to lose this.”

Miller has written federal officials in Washington, D.C., suggesting some leniency in the way CRP is managed.

“Maybe they could let the grass establish itself for five years, then allow some grazing,” he said. “You’d get the benefits of CRP with less fire danger, and the government could get so much per head to reduce CRP payments.”

Virtually everyone agrees there’s room for improvement in CRP. Among the common criticisms:

About 25 percent of CRP lands are not highly erodible. Some acreage should be returned to production, said Don Parrish, American Farm Bureau environmental specialist and CRP supporter.

“CRP has amounted to a retirement program for some farmers in Adams County by paying them to idle whole fields,” said Jim Bauermeister, of the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute. “CRP should be extended, but focused more on the most critical lands.”

Occasional controlled burns, which would rejuvenate aging stands of CRP grasses, aren’t allowed under current contracts.

“CRP plots seeded early in the program lack diversity in plant species,” said Andrews. “Planting a variety of grasses, forbs and shrubs will produce better wildlife diversity.”

The General Accounting Office has criticized the cost effectiveness of CRP’s billion-dollar-a-year price tag.

However, CRP proponents argue that instead of scrapping CRP, Congress should fine-tune it.

Bird watchers in the Audubon Society have joined bird hunters in the Delta Waterfowl Foundation to promote renewal of CRP.

The benefits in terms of air and water quality and increased revenue from hunting and fishing are worth billions to local economies, said Donal O’Brien Jr., National Audubon Society chairman.

“It’s been the most important soil conservation program ever implemented by the Department of Agriculture,” he said.

Mickey Heitmeyer, Ducks Unlimited conservation director, said CRP is the key to reversing the downward trend of waterfowl populations.

“CRP fields have about 2.5 times the nesting success of other farm fields,” he said.

The only organized opposition to CRP comes from commodity trading interests who’d like to see more grain on the market and farm implement dealers who’d like to sell more equipment, Bauermeister said.

Such dissension pales in comparison to the environmental benefits, he said.

Since 1985, CRP has prevented the loss of 400 million tons of topsoil nationwide, according to the Agriculture Department’s 10-year survey of 18,000 sites on CRP fields.

Yet the Natural Resources Conservation Service, formerly the Soil Conservation Service, has no figures on the amount of wildlife habitat or critical riparian areas lost to destructive federal cost-sharing projects over the past few decades, Rouse said.

For years, federal money was used to straighten streams, remove brush along draws and creek bottoms and monoculture vast acreages for the benefit of agriculture, Andrews said.

“Taxpayers and wildlife paid the price,” said Doug Pineo, shoreline specialist for the Washington Ecology Department. “CRP is a chance to fix some of that abuse by paying 50 percent of the costs to put dirt back into grass.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says 95 percent of the nation’s tallgrass prairies have been turned into cropland and 50 percent of original wetlands have been drained.

“We should jump at any chance to put some of our wildlife habitat back to its original order,” Andrews said. “It’s been well documented that civilizations have risen and fallen based on the way they treated their land.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color photos 2 Graphics: 1. Sizing up the impact of CRP 2. CRP benefits in Washington

MEMO: Two graphics appeared with the story: 1. SIZING UP THE IMPACT OF CRP The 10-year-old federal Conservation Reserve Program provides a financial incentive for farmers to leave a portion of their cropland in permanent non-crop cover. nationally, 36.5 million acres have been enrolled, providing habitat for wildlife, checking soil erosion and improving water quality. Because fewer acres are tilled each year, air quality if improved, too. Top CRP counties in Washington are shown below. DOUGLAS Acres in CRP 154,000 Percent of crop acreage 27% Avg. price per acre $48.60 Payments to farmers $7.4 m (in millions)

LINCOLN Acres in CRP 104,500 Percent of crop acreage 11% Avg. price per acre $49.35 Payments to farmers $5.2 m

ADAMS Acres in CRP 214,000 Percent of crop acreage 25% Avg. price per acre $49.50 Payments to farmers $10.7 m

WHITMAN Acres in CRP 46,000 Percent of crop acreage 4% Avg. price per acre $61 Payments to farmers $3 m

WASHINGTON Acres in CRP 1,045,000 Payments to farmers $52.5 (in millions)

OREGON Acres in CRP 531,000 Payments to farmers $26 m

IDAHO Acres in CRP 877,000 Payments to farmers $40.1 m Source: Consolidated Farm Services Agency Staff graphic: Molly Quinn

2. CRP BENEFITS IN WASHINGTON Water Erosion Reduces soil loss from water erosion by an average of 10 tons per acre per year. Water quality Prevents about 1.4 million tons of sediment from being washed into streams and lakes each year. Air quality Reduces wind erosion by about 3 million tons of soil a year, a significant bonus for Spokane and the Tri-Cities. Wildlife Pernament cover increases abundance and diversity of wildlife such as mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants, quail, partridge, songbirds and raptors. CRP is particularly beneficial to waterfowl when it occurs along wetlands.

Source: National Resource Conservation Service Staff graphic: Molly Quinn

Two graphics appeared with the story: 1. SIZING UP THE IMPACT OF CRP The 10-year-old federal Conservation Reserve Program provides a financial incentive for farmers to leave a portion of their cropland in permanent non-crop cover. nationally, 36.5 million acres have been enrolled, providing habitat for wildlife, checking soil erosion and improving water quality. Because fewer acres are tilled each year, air quality if improved, too. Top CRP counties in Washington are shown below. DOUGLAS Acres in CRP 154,000 Percent of crop acreage 27% Avg. price per acre $48.60 Payments to farmers $7.4 m (in millions)

LINCOLN Acres in CRP 104,500 Percent of crop acreage 11% Avg. price per acre $49.35 Payments to farmers $5.2 m

ADAMS Acres in CRP 214,000 Percent of crop acreage 25% Avg. price per acre $49.50 Payments to farmers $10.7 m

WHITMAN Acres in CRP 46,000 Percent of crop acreage 4% Avg. price per acre $61 Payments to farmers $3 m

WASHINGTON Acres in CRP 1,045,000 Payments to farmers $52.5 (in millions)

OREGON Acres in CRP 531,000 Payments to farmers $26 m

IDAHO Acres in CRP 877,000 Payments to farmers $40.1 m Source: Consolidated Farm Services Agency Staff graphic: Molly Quinn

2. CRP BENEFITS IN WASHINGTON Water Erosion Reduces soil loss from water erosion by an average of 10 tons per acre per year. Water quality Prevents about 1.4 million tons of sediment from being washed into streams and lakes each year. Air quality Reduces wind erosion by about 3 million tons of soil a year, a significant bonus for Spokane and the Tri-Cities. Wildlife Pernament cover increases abundance and diversity of wildlife such as mule deer, sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants, quail, partridge, songbirds and raptors. CRP is particularly beneficial to waterfowl when it occurs along wetlands.

Source: National Resource Conservation Service Staff graphic: Molly Quinn



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