COMMENTARY

2007 Farm Bill
Just what is the Conservation Reserve Program protecting, anyway?

Posted February 16, 2007

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One thing that is seldom discussed is how effective are these various programs. There has been little critiquing of the ultimate conservation value of these programs. Nearly all of these conservation efforts do accomplish some positive conservation results, but often at an extremely high price tag, and often without lasting results.

The one program I have reviewed extensively over the years is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) which pays farmers not to plow up highly erodible lands. In the first place, if the Clean Water Act were actually enforced, the plowing of highly erodible lands would probably be illegal, because this is one of the major sources of non-point water pollution.

Beyond that fact, the CRP is supported by many conservation groups because its presumed benefits for wildlife—ground nesting and grassland birds for example, and so on. Wildlife does use CRP lands, but the conservation benefits are coincidental—not the major thrust of the program. In some places, CRP lands have made substantial contributions to higher wildlife production and probably are a wise investment. But in many other areas the money expended has questionable benefits—particularly long term benefits—and few are reviewing these cost benefits since there are few critics of the program.

There are two apparent reasons: Conservation groups are so anxious to have any money spent on wildlife, they accept less than stellar results. Some just don't know about all the negatives, in part because agriculture is a big booster of these programs since it's a way to get more money to farmers without violating ag subsidy issues in international trade and because most farmers only enroll lands that aren't that productive for commodity production anyway—in other words, it's no skin off their back to enroll these lands since they make more money reliably by milking the government than growing crops.

For instance, lands are not enrolled based on their overall value to wildlife; in many cases there is limited wildlife benefit and in some cases some net wildlife losses. Many of these CRP parcels end up being patches of unplowed ground in the midst of plowed habitat, making them extremely vulnerable to edge effects—invasion by exotic weeds, etc.—also easy targets for predators. Coyotes, skunks, etc., quickly learn that if they go to the small patches of unplowed ground they can find lots of bird nests. In the end, even though someone may find there is a lot of use of these lands by birds, the question you need to ask is what is the net recruitment to the population. In many instances, these parcels become predator pits—in other words, more birds are ultimately killed than are produced, and thus birds nesting on these CRP lands becomes a net loss to the populations.

Furthermore, since these contracts are only for 10 years, the benefits—if they exist—are not permanent. What good is it if you produce, say, more ducks or sharptail grouse for 10 years, but a price hike in grain causes all these lands to be plowed up at the end of the 10-year contracts—and given the emphasis on ethanol we are seeing, we may well see the vast majority of these lands revert back to agricultural use. The money we are spending on the CRP is huge—an average of $1.5 billion a year. To put that into perspective, we spend about $300 million (not billion) to operate all 500-plus national wildlife areas in the country. The average CRP payment of $300 an acre—or about $3000 an acre over the 10 years of the contract—is enough in many parts of the country to purchase these lands outright. Would we be better off just buying these generally unproductive and highly erodible lands and putting them into permanent public ownership? That would permanently ensure their protection from agricultural overuse (and of course provide more public access and direct wildlife benefits.

No one is asking these kinds of questions about CRP—everyone from progressives to conservatives seems eager to support these programs without questioning if this is the most effective way to spend money or achieve the desired goals of reducing soil erosion, protecting wildlife habitat and getting more money to farmers outside the vehicle of agricultural subsidies.

George Wuerthner
Ecological Projects Director
Foundation for Deep Ecology