Future Unclear on $2 Billion-a-Year U.S. Land Reserve
WASHINGTON A vast amount of fragile land set aside for a taxpayer-funded conservation program that pays U.S. farmers $2 billion a year is about to lose its protected status, and environmentalists are demanding changes to bring more soil, water and wildlife benefits at a lower cost.
Lawmakers have yet to discuss any major changes in the 34.9 million acre Conservation Reserve program. The U.S. Agriculture Department may not decide until later this year how to handle the looming turn-over of land.
The reserve pays farmers to retire fragile land that is vulnerable to erosion, needed to filter and improve water quality, or enhance wildlife habitat. Growers are required to plant grasses or trees as permanent ground cover.
Five states in the cattle and wheat-growing Great Plains account for 45 percent of land in the reserve.
"The biggest single question ... is whether you keep paying to retire the same land into perpetuity," said Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Hoefner is among activists who say it is cheaper and more effective to buy easements to protect fragile land for years into the future.
Two-thirds of the land in the reserve was under contracts that expire in late 2007 and late 2008. Some 16 million acres, an area the size of West Virginia, mature in 2007 alone.
Most contracts for the reserve run 10 years. Average rent is $48.29 an acre annually -- guaranteed income for farmers, compared with gyrations of grain and livestock prices.
Popular among farmers and sportsmen, the reserve program accounts for half of USDA spending on land protection. Advocates of long-term easements and payments for stewardship of "working" farmland yearn for that kind of support.
President Bush, who has praised the reserve's environmental record, instructed USDA last August to offer landowners the chance to extend expiring contracts or to re-enroll before their contracts run out. The reserve is credited with reducing soil erosion by millions of tons a year and providing welcome habitat for wildlife.
"We think the program is the premier conservation program in the country," John Johnson, deputy administrator for farm programs in USDA's Farm Service Agency, said in an interview.
A blanket re-enrollment of land "would be a missed opportunity" to upgrade the reserve and would force farmers to wait years for another chance to enroll, said Craig Cox of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, based in Iowa.
Instead, Cox said, USDA could extend contracts for a few years on land with the highest environmental payback, creating a larger opportunity for new entries to the reserve.
The annual cost of the program could be reduced, Cox's group says, if USDA wrote longer-running contracts and bought easements to protect fragile land for years into the future.
Land in the Conservation Reserve is equal to 10 percent of U.S. cropland. USDA analysts say half of that land would return to crops if contracts ended.
"That's a question for the Hill (Congress)," USDA's Johnson said, referring to broad use of long-term easements.
An offshoot of the reserve, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, works on projects chosen by states and in some cases, such as a recent Minnesota plan, includes state purchase of easements to preserve buffer strips for decades.
UNCLEAR IF USDA PLANNING CHANGES
Meanwhile, USDA was mulling half a dozen issues spotlighted by the 5,000 responses it received last year when it asked how to handle the impending turnover of land.
Johnson declined to say if major changes were coming. "I think the program got a shot in the arm last August," he said.
That was when Bush told USDA to preserve benefits achieved so far in the reserve and to enroll 250,000 acres of land for the northern bobwhite quail and 250,000 acres of wetland habitat for upland ducks, pheasants and sandhill cranes.
Despite its popularity, the reserve has critics.
Some in the cattle industry say it shuts them out of grazing and hay land. Some community leaders say vast tracts of idle land mean less business for equipment dealers, feed stores, grain handlers and fertilizer depots in rural towns.