From: Elizabeth M. Gillespie, Associated Press
Published October 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Lawsuit Accuses Feds of Mismanaging Conservation Program

SEATTLE — The National Wildlife Federation has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that duck, pheasant, and other ground-nesting bird populations are being harmed by mismanagement of a government program that pays farmers to set aside croplands.

The lawsuit challenges a decision made by the Farm Service Agency, a division of U.S. Department of Agriculture, that allows haying and grazing on millions of acres of land enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) during times when birds are likely to be nesting or rearing their broods in the inland West and Great Plains.

"Haying and grazing during primary nesting season damages the very wildlife and habitat the CRP seeks to protect," said Mark Heckert, president of the Washington Wildlife Federation, one of six affiliates that joined the National Wildlife Federation in filing the lawsuit this week in U.S. District Court in Seattle.

Julie Quick, a USDA spokeswoman, said she could not comment on the lawsuit but noted that the only way conservation lands can be grazed or hayed is if farmers submit management plans that address wildlife concerns and win the Farm Service Agency's approval.

Created in 1985, the conservation program pays farmers an average of $48 a year for every acre of environmentally sensitive cropland they set aside for 10 to 15 years, turning it into grasslands that provide habitat to migratory birds.


The government pays about $1.7 billion a year to nearly 393,000 farmers, who collectively have about 35 million acres enrolled in the program.

When Congress passed the 2002 farm bill, it opened conservation lands to haying and grazing, reasoning that light grazing or occasional haying could make lands more productive for wildlife by clearing out grasses that are too tall or thick.

The plaintiffs, which include National Wildlife Federation affiliates in Washington, Arkansas, Indiana, South Dakota, Louisiana, and Kansas, say the changes adopted in 2002 threaten the success of a popular program that has boosted populations of migratory ducks by millions while giving farmers a new source of income.

"When the Conservation Reserve Program is being managed in a way that works against conservation, something is fundamentally wrong," said Tom France, senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation.

The plaintiffs argue that the Farm Service Agency pushed the revised rule through Congress without a thorough environmental review as required by law.

All 50 states and Puerto Rico have croplands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Texas tops the list with nearly 4 million acres, followed by Montana and North Dakota, each with about 3.4 million acres.

Source: Associated Press

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