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Conservation Reserve enhancement Program
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
April 6, 2005 DOUG0406

The second phase of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is an ambitious proposal to remove 120,000 acres of farmland from production in the northwest, southwest and southeast regions of Minnesota and restore wetlands and grasslands.

The cost: $250 million, including $50 million from the state and $200 million from the federal government.

But it's not without controversy.

Although it should improve water quality on streams and rivers, protect groundwater and boost wildlife habitat for everything from fish to pheasants, ducks and deer, a dispute over whether the lands should be permanently or temporarily taken out of production nearly killed the proposal last year.

The first phase of CREP, which affected 100,000 acres along the Minnesota River, began in 1998 and cost about $244 million. Farmers had the option of permanent or temporary easements, and about 98 percent of the 2,500 easements were permanent, meaning those lands can never be farmed again. The second phase of CREP would have offered landowners similar options.

Conservation and environmental groups favored the measure. But state farm groups, along with Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Gil Gutknecht, R-Minn., opposed the permanent easements. A reluctant compromise was reached last year among the various groups and politicians.

But the Legislature failed last year to approve a bill funding CREP.

Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced that an agreement on a state bonding bill had been reached, and that it contained $23 million to launch CREP. (More money will have to be allocated next year to get all available matching federal dollars.) The Legislature is expected to approve the bill this week.

Of the 120,000 acres, permanent easements will be required on 29,000 acres for wetland restoration and flood mitigation. The remaining 91,000 acres will be set aside for 45 years.

Pro: For permanent easements

Dan Koob, who grew up on a Minnesota farm and now lives in New York, heads a family trust that holds his family's 440-acre farm in Cottonwood County near Windom. (The land isn't eligible for the second phase of CREP.) He said it should be shelved unless it offers landowners the option of permanent easements.

"They have an obligation to do this well or not at all," Koob said. "This is a mistake. It's a ruse. It's a hope and a prayer that in 45 years something else will come around to fund it. The [environmental] problem was created by government to drain and ditch; the cost of undoing it should be done once and for all.

"It fraudulently corrupts a one-time cost buy-out program into yet another hugely expensive entitlement program that holds the public's need for clean waters hostage to subsidies for farmers."

Koob estimates that, with inflation, the cost in 2050 to deal with the set-aside lands could approach $2 billion.

Rob Drieslein, editor of Outdoor News, a weekly outdoor newspaper, suggested in January that without permanent easements, CREP should be killed. He said the state should instead use the $23 million it was going to spend on CREP to buy sensitive lands for its wildlife management area system, which is open to the public.

"I was kind of throwing it out there to stir the pot and see if the suggestion might help the long-term easement option get one last look," Drieslein said. "Obviously, if it's a matter of CREP with short-term easements or no CREP, I'll support the former. I was just really disappointed that Big Ag pushed so hard to remove the permanent easement option. I thought Minnesota River CREP was a marvelous win-win-win program. It was a win for the taxpayer, for the environment and for the landowner. This version of CREP has removed the taxpayer from the win, because in 45 years, we get to do it all over."

Con: Against permanent easements

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said: "All of my ag people are against it [permanent easements]. Mostly in reaction to what happened with Minnesota River Valley CREP. When they signed onto that they were told permanent easements were going to be an option, but when they went out to sign up farmers, they said we're only doing permanent easements because we have more people than we need. The farm people that signed on to the deal felt betrayed and decided to lay down the law on this one. All the farm groups were up at arms.

"I don't think we're smart enough to be able to decide what we're doing now is the right thing for 100 years from now, and I don't think it's necessary. I was opposed to it, 100 percent. I think 30 years [easements] is plenty long. I'm against doing things permanently, because times change."

As for the argument that taxpayers will have to pay again after 45 years, Peterson said:

"Fine. If it's worth it to the taxpayers, we'll do it; if not, we won't."

Peterson said he and Gutknecht killed the permanent easement plan. "We called the Secretary of Agriculture and told her that if you go ahead with these, you're going to have trouble with us," Peterson said.

Doug Peterson is president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, one of a coalition of farm groups that opposed the permanent easements.

"A lot of land that went into [the first] CREP should never have been enrolled," he said. "If you end up closing off land-use situations, you're limiting resources." Peterson said his organization isn't opposed to all permanent easements, and supports the current CREP proposal, which includes about 24 percent permanent easements.

Doug Smith is at [email protected].
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