Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman unveiled guidelines Wednesday for an environmental land set-aside program that could affect thousands of farmers across the wind-swept Columbia River Basin.
Calling it “the most profound conservation program in the history of the United States,” Glickman said he has broadened the national Conservation Reserve Program to focus on more than just soil conservation.
“We will enroll only the most environmentally sensitive land,” Glickman said, noting that wildlife habitat and water benefits also will be considered for enrolling land.
The long-awaited final rules are expected to reduce the 1 million acres of CRP land currently enrolled in Eastern Washington, but not by as much as previously feared.
After receiving testimony from more than 3,000 producers nationwide, Glickman said the agriculture department agreed to consider air quality benefits when enrolling CRP acres and to permit some marginal pasture land and range land in the program. Both changes may increase the eligibility of dry cropland in the Inland Northwest and the Great Plains.
“It will be interesting to see how these areas fare when the USDA puts them in their computer and pushes the button,” said John Payne, legislative chairman of the Ritzville-based Washington Wheat Growers Association.
However, thousands of CRP acres in Adams, Franklin, Lincoln and Douglas counties won’t be eligible to re-enroll in the program unless Glickman grants a request to create a conservation priority area for windblown flatlands on the Columbia plateau. A decision is expected within a week.
Sign up for the new CRP will run from March 3 to March 28.
The new rules set the course for continuing a farm program that, in the past, idled more than 36 million acres of fragile U.S. cropland. Under the program, which has been praised by wildlife conservationists and farmers, landowners leased land to the agriculture department in exchange for seeding prairie grasses or trees on the soil and leaving it untouched for at least 10 years.
Glickman said the new guidelines make up to 240 million acres eligible for enrollment. However, the program is capped at 36.4 million acres, or 15 percent of the land eligible. Current enrollment is 32 million acres.
Glickman said the new guidelines will push the cost of the program up by $100 million a year, raising the annual bill to $1.9 billion. Average annual rental rate nationwide should grow from $50 an acre to $53.
The new guidelines drew immediate fire from Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who threatened to cut CRP funding if the agriculture department idles too much productive cropland.
“The USDA proposal allows more than half the nation’s cropland to be eligible for CRP,” Lugar said in a statement. “The expectation of Congress was that the conservation programs would be targeted and economical.”
, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Bill Bell Jr. Staff writer Staff writer Grayden Jones contributed to this story.