Outdoors: Conservation lands won't be plowed ... for now
St Paul Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated: 07/30/2008 12:34:41 AM CDT
Ducks and pheasants dodged a missile Tuesday but may ultimately lose the war for grassland conservation.
Despite heavy pressure from farm and commodity groups, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday backed away from a proposal allowing landowners to tear up their Conservation Reserve Program contracts without a financial penalty.
Conservation groups argued — successfully, it appears — that a contract is a contract and allowing landowners to withdraw would deal a premature blow to wildlife populations.
"I'm glad to hear it," said Kurt Haroldson, a Department of Natural Resources wildlife researcher in Madelia, Minn. "It will buy us a little more time, but I'm not optimistic about the long-term future of CRP, especially in the Dakotas."
Let's give Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer the kudos he deserves. He was under tremendous pressure to open the floodgates on CRP, given soaring crop prices and Wall Street's expectations for continued growth in agriculture stocks. Commodity groups said that floods and droughts this summer further hurt the country's efforts to meet corn and soybean demands.
But surprise, surprise — corn prices are down 25 percent from record high prices last month and America's corn crop is on track to be the second largest on record, Schafer said in a news conference Tuesday.
But Schafer is aware of another reality — enrollment in the nation's top conservation program will drop on its own because Congress wants it to.
Contracts on about 1.1 million acres, out of 34.7 million acres nationwide, will expire Sept. 30 and expire on another 3.8 million acres in 2009 and on another 4.4 million acres in 2010.
"So, large blocks of land will be available for other uses — if landowners choose to pursue them," Schafer said.
In Minnesota, Haroldson said the situation is serious, but how dire won't be known until landowners make their CRP decisions. The state lost about 52,000 acres of CRP last year out of nearly 1 million acres, but that was far less than was predicted. Contracts on another 99,000 acres are set to expire next year.
But on the positive side, landowners are quickly signing up for the State Acres For wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) program, an alternative conservation program announced last winter in St. Paul. The state was capped at 23,000 of SAFE acres and "it appears we might sign up all our acres," Haroldson said.
In the end, "it doesn't appear we're losing the 300,000 acres (of CRP) like the Dakotas lost last year."
Still, Haroldson spent Tuesday mapping conservation areas in southwest Minnesota, and he's seeing a lot of CRP getting plowed under. "If those are pieces where you hunt, it's pretty significant." He added that the state's banner pheasant season of 2007, when 655,000 roosters were killed, will be difficult to duplicate without CRP.
Moreover, the corn crisis isn't over. Consumers are decrying the high prices of groceries, and the increased demand — albeit terribly misguided — for corn-based ethanol will continue to drive more pressure to produce corn.
Ducks Unlimited, which caters to duck hunters to be sure, is sounding evermore like a clean-water steward. The group issued a news release Tuesday, crediting CRP with conserving more than 470 million tons of topsoil and lessening agricultural runoff that has been linked to a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.
Haroldson's annual roadside counts for pheasants begin in a few weeks, and he is hopeful the survey will show bird numbers are strong. But he said hens are increasingly crowding into small chunks of habitat, thus producing fewer chicks.
"Unless we add significantly more habitat, it's hard to imagine we'll get more pheasants," he said.
In other words, the good old days of pheasant hunting may be here today and gone tomorrow.
Chris Niskanen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org