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Conservation lands await farm bill approval

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, at 8:05 a.m.

As National Wildlife Federation program director, Julie Sibbing knows the importance of the Conservation Reserve Program, which she says is the largest wildlife habitat project in history.

At times, Sibbing said, there have been more acres of CRP grasses than acres in the national wildlife refuge system in the contiguous 48 states.

Currently there are about 30 million acres enrolled in the federal program that pays landowners to take lands out of crop production. About 2.2 million acres are in Kansas.

But the program’s future is uncertain and will soon expire. Congress, which funds CRP, hasn’t acted on a new farm bill.

Dale Hall, Ducks Unlimited chief executive officer, said every major conservation group fears what might happen if the new bill isn’t quickly passed so funding can continue.

Originating in the 1985 farm bill, CRP was largely designed to reduce crop surpluses. Reducing soil and wind erosion, and filtering pollutants out of water were other plusses.

Its usefulness to wildlife has grown in importance through CRP’s lifetime.

“We started off really strong with CRP and it’s gotten stronger with time,” said Rob Manes, Nature Conservancy of Kansas director. “We started with about five species of native grasses in our fields and now we have dozens of species of grasses and forbs. It’s a heck of a success story.”

Manes said many people don’t realize how many species utilize the Kansas grasses.

“This is not just a program for pheasants,” he said. “There are many other species that benefit from CRP. Kansas is the only state where lesser prairie chickens are holding their own and that’s largely attributed to CRP.”

Recent programs, he said, have even been tailored to helping species in need of special habitats.

And no time has CRP been more important than over the past few years. Sibbing referred to it as “the last bastion of habitat” for some species of grassland birds, the fastest declining group of species in North America.

She referenced a University of Michigan study that said some grassland species have decreased by about one-third because of sizable habitat reductions in recent years.

“Some of that is due to CRP being taken out, and some from native grass being broken out to be planted,” Sibbing said. “The amount of native grass we’re losing is a huge concern.”

Hall said CRP has helped lessen the loss of lots of prairie in the Dakotas, and other places millions of ducks nest, as more grassy areas are plowed and planted to corn for ethanol production.

And during the last two summers of severe Midwestern drought, Hall said the fields also proved their worth by providing emergency forage for cattle.

The grass, he said, could recover quickly when rains come.

While CRP is the largest, it’s not the only conservation program that receives farm bill funding.

Ducks Unlimited has used the related Wetlands Reserve Program and other incentives to help protect marshlands.

The Nature Conservancy has used some federal funding to help with a program that pays landowners to enroll lands in conservation easements.

Once enrolled, such lands can never undergo changes that could hurt local wildlife or special habitats.

“And don’t forget,” added Manes, “all of those places are improving water quality, air quality and soil quality. Everybody is benefiting from it.”

Manes and the others aren’t naïve enough to think CRP and the other conservation programs will go unscathed during the ongoing federal budget problems.

Their groups have been working for months to figure out how the government can best benefit wildlife for money that’s available in the proposed farm bill.

While most conservation groups had hoped for up to 28 million acres of CRP lands, the proposed bill awaiting vote authorizes up to about 25 million acres.

If it happens, Sibbing said that loss of about another 5 to 7 million acres from current enrollment could be “devastating” for gamebirds.” That is especially so in states such as Iowa, where huge amounts of CRP fields have already been converted to farm lands.

Manes isn’t so pessimistic, but he’s still worried about losses to CRP funding and the related programs and habitat reductions that could follow.

All he can do is lobby, wait and hope things don’t get worse..

Hall said the main problem is getting the proposed new farm bill past the House, even though it passed the Senate and a House committee with ease.

Hall fears time taken for Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, plus a backload of other bills, could leave little time for the farm bill. The longer the bill lingers, Hall and Manes say, the greater the chances even more cuts might come.

“If we don’t get this farm bill passed, we lose so much momentum,” Hall said. “We really need this.”

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