The timing couldn't be worse.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed eliminating general enrollments in the Conservation Reserve Program - arguably the best land set-aside program in the nation - for the next two years. This comes at a time when more than 4 million acres of CRP contracts are expiring.
If you hunt pheasants in Minnesota, you don't need to be convinced about the value of CRP. That land - combined with mild winters - has allowed the birds to bounce back to respectable numbers. There's no way to measure it, but it's safe to say that without CRP, we'd have a lot fewer pheasants.
With 36 million acres nationwide, CRP enrollments total more acres than the entire National Wildlife Refuge system in the lower 48 states, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Through CRP, landowners have restored 2 million acres of wetlands, protected 170 thousand miles of streams and sequestered 48 million tons of carbon dioxide in the soil.
Minnesota ranks seventh in the nation in CRP acreage with 1.8 million acres. Crow Wing County has 503 acres and Cass County has 871 acres enrolled in the program.
The USDA also announced that current CRP contract holders might be let out of their agreements without penalty in order to grow corn. Who needs more corn? Not pheasants or other wildlife, but the American driver. The USDA says releasing contract holders from their agreements would help promote the production of E-85, fuel made from corn.
But if you read the North Country section in the March 4 Dispatch, you know that corn-based ethanol isn't the answer to our energy woes. From that March 4 story comes the following quote from Spencer Tomb, a professor at Kansas State University: "Corn-based ethanol is at best a transitional fuel until we can produce cellulosic ethanol. Hopefully that will happen within the next 6 to 12 years."
Is it a good move to plow up CRP land for a transitional fuel that will be phased out within the next decade? That would be tragic, especially if the fragile and marginal lands that make up the backbone of CRP are plowed under. It would contribute little to biofuels production while impacting wildlife in a huge way.
CRP has accomplished a lot in 20 years. Eliminating enrollments now would end what's been a win-win program for landowners. According to a 2006 study by the Agriculture Policy Analysis Center at the University of Tennessee, if CRP contracts are eliminated as they expire, 37 percent of those lands, or 12.7 million acres, will return to crop production by 2015.
Now's the time to expand, not contract, CRP. The old adage "farm the best and protect the rest" is still good policy today.
VINCE MEYER, outdoors editor, can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5862.
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