Federal Conservation Programs at workBy: Amos S. Eno
I just read that the USDA's nationwide Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) topped the 1 million acre mark last week with the addition of a 60 acre tract in Minnesota. That is a great milestone.
Farmers who participate in the CREP program agree to retire crop and pastureland determined to be highly subject to erosion or otherwise environmentally sensitive. During a 10- to 15-year contract period, the participant landowners convert the retired land to grass, trees, wetlands, wildlife cover and other conservation uses. The plantings help prevent soil and fertilizer from running into streams and rivers where they can harm water quality. Wildlife habitat and soil quality also benefit from the plantings. The farmers receive incentive payments from the USDA during the terms of their CREP participation.
Here is the quote from the Secretary of Agriculture:
"Enrolling the one millionth acre is an important milestone in the history of USDA's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program," said acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner in a press release. "By collaborating with agricultural producers, state agencies and many other partners through this highly effective program, USDA is improving water quality, wildlife habitat, soil productivity and air quality throughout the country today and for the next generation."
The CREP program began in 1997, with the enrollment of the first acre of land in Maryland. Plantings and improvements made on the 60 acres just enrolled in Minnesota will help protect water quality in the Missouri River watershed and restore wildlife habitat.
Then on the other side of the coin the Conservation Reserve Program is shrinking! Officials at USDA NRCS and the states the program is active in, are concerned that higher crop prices and rental rates are driving land, and as a result habitat, out of the program and into production. In South Dakota 17 percent of their CRP acres were not renewed this year -- that's nearly 300,000 acres. U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., reports that losing CRP acres will have impacts in many places such as the tourism and hunting areas. He says conservation reserve acres are the reason South Dakota has a successful pheasant hunting industry. And it's a big one with a $150 million economic impact. Losing wildlife habitat is a big concern for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks. Bill Smith, a senior wildlife biologist, says this year had the largest pheasant population in 40 years. He says 2008 will be a different story.
CRP land produces cleaner air, cleaner water, wildlife, and beauty. As a conservation program, it's not perfect, but what it produces for society is just as valuable as corn and beans.
As I continue to say conservation on private lands is the future of conservation and habitat protection in this country. We need to continue to support and foster the best stewards of this nation's land - private landowners!