At the heart of the Inland Northwest, Spokane is harbored from the ravages of hurricanes. Violent twisters are rare and volcanoes only erupt every 100 years or so.
But a disaster may be brewing on the land that could have Spokane residents wishing for monsoons.
Beginning next year, Inland Northwest farmers may begin plowing up more than 1,200 square miles of grass-covered, idled and protected farmland to grow wheat and other crops.
Most of the land is west of Spokane and vulnerable to stiff winds that occasionally shave off topsoil and send it airborne.
The change may occur because the government is altering the rules for participating in its massive land bank initiative known as the Conservation Reserve Program. Thousands of Inland Northwest acres may no longer qualify for the program, or get the cash rents needed from the government to stay idled.
As the government shifts its focus to preserving the nation’s wetlands and wildlife habitat, it inadvertently may turn portions of Washington and Idaho into a dust bowl.
“The potential is here for a gigantic wreck,” says Dennis Swinger, an Adams County wheat grower and chairman of the county conservation district. “Nobody knows what will happen, but the potential is incredible. We’re being set up for a disaster.”
Under the CRP, the government rents certain crop lands for 10 years. Landowners bid for CRP contracts and agree to idle their land and tie down the soil by planting crested wheat grass or trees.
Adams County, with its 208,000 dryland acres, has the nation’s largest concentration of CRP land. Many of its CRP fields, where less than 10 inches of rain falls each year, have blossomed into lush pasture. The growth has spawned the return of sagebrush, deer, pheasants and rabbits on some farms.
If landowners can’t keep their CRP acres next year, they may tear out the decade-old sod and seed the ground with a crop that, at the very least, covers the cost of property taxes. In some places, the ground will lie fallow - and exposed - every other year as a way to collect enough moisture to grow the following year’s crop.
About 80 percent of Washington’s CRP ground comes up for renewal in 1997, say U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. Nearly 24 million CRP acres nationwide or two-thirds of the 35 million acres enrolled - also may expire.
Researchers dread the idea of exposing fine topsoil to 60 mph windstorms heading straight for Spokane, a city with failing air quality. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently agreed to stop penalizing Spokane for windstorm dust, that’s of little consequence to people suffering from respiratory illness, or anyone who covets clean air.
“When this stuff blows, it goes straight up into the air and heads straight to Spokane,” says Mike Klunglund, a Columbia Basin air quality expert at the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers fear the effects of wind erosion, too. The soil they lose reduces the years their descendents will be able to farm the land.
Farmers, politicians and some USDA employees worry that much of the Inland Northwest CRP land and money will shift to the Midwest, where protecting water quality and wildlife habitat is paramount.
Announcing the proposed rules for the program, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman last month promised that shift would not happen. The new rules, he said, will “yield the highest environmental benefits, and return to production less erodible land better suited for planting crops.”
The proposed rules also allow greater use of new technology in combating erosion, and waive penalties if a landowner unintentionally violates the CRP contract.
Farmers and others still have time to comment on the new CRP rules before they become final, but no one is optimistic. Glickman’s proposed rules were months overdue and the department is dangerously close to missing deadlines for farmers to make decisions about how to manage their land.
The primary concern is that the rules don’t give wind erosion the same consideration that it had in the past.
One way to gauge how much Inland Northwest land might be protected under CRP in the future is to look at the last time farmers bid to enroll acreage in the program.
The USDA’s 13th CRP sign up, which occurred last year, was the first time the department focused on enrolling land that qualified as “environmentally sensitive.”
Four Midwestern states - Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska - accounted for 31 percent of the nation’s total CRP acreage enrolled. That was up from 27 percent during the 12th sign up in 1992, when the old rules were in place.
The difference was made up, in part, in the Pacific Northwest. Washington, Idaho and Oregon, which had accounted for 7 percent of the nation’s CRP acres enrolled in 1992, fell to 3 percent during the 1995 sign up. The number of Northwest acres enrolled fell from 72,000 in 1992 to 19,000 in 1995, though average payment rates did not change significantly.
“The competition next year will be stiff,” says Stan Liebing, conservation specialist for the Farm Service Agency, the USDA agency that sends checks to CRP landowners.
“In the Midwest and Dakota prairies they’re likely to get credit for waterfowl, wetlands and other things. Out here, all we’re going to get is the environmental benefit of less erosion, and maybe some deer. The farmer’s bid will have to be lower for us to compete.”
CRP cost U.S. taxpayers about $1.8 billion per year. It enjoys wide support from farmers, environmentalists, hunters, wildlife biologists and the public.
A University of Idaho survey of 2,000 participants in the CRP found that 85 percent would sign up for another 10-year contract if they could.
Grain exporters, food processors and other companies that stand to gain financially from an increase in crop production are among the few questioning the need for CRP. They assert that 22 million acres of CRP could be brought back into production to meet world demand for grain and increase U.S. agriculture revenue.
In Eastern Washington, the program has preserved a patchwork of 1 million acres, an area four times the size of Mount Rainier National Park. In Idaho, there are about 800,000 acres of CRP, with about 55,000 acres in North Idaho.
The average annual payment in Washington is $51 an acre, though payments range from $25 to $94 depending on the value of the property and type of soil. In Spokane County, landowners pocket $2.2 million each year for preserving 38,000 CRP acres.
That’s good money for some landowners. But others believe they could make more by growing a crop on the land.
“We’re hoping we’ll be able to keep our CRP,” says Harold Crose, Grant County district conservationist. “But some producers would like to see it come out and are looking for a way to be released from their agreement.”
Since its inception in 1985, CRP has been a tool for government to control crop production and bank fertile soil for future generations.
The program is, in some ways, a victim of its own success.
During the first decade of CRP sign ups, payments weren’t high enough to persuade Whitman County farmers to mothball their high-yielding, steeply sloped land. But the money was ample for owners of marginal land in low rainfall areas west of Spokane.
The government had designated some of the property as “highly erodible land,” which means it had the type of topsoil that could easily blow or wash away. Under the new rules, those parcels may still qualify for future CRP contracts.
But many acres of CRP were simply poor crop land that probably should never have been farmed. The government made it easy for farmers to enroll that land as a method of restraining overproduction of grain.
When the Republican-lead Congress adopted a new farm bill earlier this year, they eliminated the production-control strategy. Their “freedom to farm” bill eliminates farm subsidies by 2002 and forces growers to compete in the world market without government assistance.
It also paved the way for CRP to become a purely environmental program.
Under the new program, the government is expected to assess each CRP contract bid with an “environmental benefit index.” The index, similar to one used during the 13th sign up, ranks the benefit of idling the land. Property that will enhance water quality, protect wildlife and preserve wetlands will score high. Property where the sole benefit is reducing wind erosion will score lower.
“There’s not a lot of trees and shrubs and streams out here,” Klunglund says, tossing fine soil into the breeze. “Congress kind of left us out of the loop.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color) Graphic: CRP acreage
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? The U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold a public hearing in Spokane at 1 p.m. Oct. 21 on proposed final rules for managing the Conservation Reserve Program. The hearing will be held in the Classroom Building Auditorium of the Joint Center for Higher Education, 668 N. Riverpoint Blvd. Written comments also may be mailed before Nov. 5 to: Cheryl Zavodny, Farm Service Agency, CEPD, P.O. Box 2415, Stop 0513, Washington, D.C. 20050-0513. On-line comments may be sent to Lloyd E. Wright, Director, Conservation Ecosystems Assistance Division, Natural Resource Conservation Service, at http://astro.itc.nrcs.usda.gov:6500. After considering the comments, USDA will issue final rules for the program and launch the first CRP sign up early next year. -Grayden Jones