Noah’s Ark and a Formidable Flotilla

By TERRY Z. RILEY, Ph.D., Vice President for Policy, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This article first appeared in the C.E.P (Conservative Environmental Policy) Quarterly, Winter 2007, Vol. 2, #4


Congress is turning its attention this year to the omnibus legislation commonly known as the Farm Bill. Many people may not realize that the Farm Bill is one of the most important federal measures for maintaining the integrity of our fish and wildlife populations.

While it presents only about 5 percent of total Farm Bill spending, the approximately $5 billion in annual expenditures authorized in the bill’s Conservation Title total two-and-a-half times the entire budget of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And with more than half of the country’s total land base in the hands of private landowners to tend it, the Farm Bill’s rare focus on privately held lands makes its importance increase.

By analyzing the Farm Bill’s historical accomplishments in conservation policy making and gaining an appreciation of the contemporary achievements of today’s largest Farm Bill conservation program, the need to preserve and expand the effectiveness of these programs becomes crystal clear.

Since the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created and administered a broad range of conservation and environmental programs to assist private farm, ranch and forest owners and operators in conserving and improv-
ing soil, water, and other natural resources. Emphasis on different conservation programs has shifted over the years, often linked to the production of commodity crops and, by and large, the health of the agricultural economy.

The first federal agricultural program to require planting of protective cover on
land retired from crop production was the Agricultural Conservation Program (ACP). This program authorized the retirement of cropland in 12 Midwestern states between 1936 and 1942. About 22 million acres of cropland were retired each year, and produc- ers were required to establish and maintain a grass and/or legume cover crop on each retired field.

Few if any of the conservation benefits from the ACP were documented for soil, water or wildlife during this time. One study showed
a strong relationship between pheasant harvests in the Midwest and the number of acres enrolled in the ACP program. It concluded that the ACP was instrumental in producing the large pheasant populations observed in the Midwest during the early 1940s.

Tension in Europe and Asia in the 1940s created a huge demand for food and other resources, and federal cropland retirement programs were discontinued from 1943 through 1955. Consequently, the amount of land in crop production in the U.S. increased dramatically as the country entered World War II.

Worldwide demand for food had declined by the 1950s, and overproduction became a problem for farmers and the federal government. The USDA responded by creating a new land retirement program called the Soil Bank in 1956. Initially, USDA began with an annual retirement program that had no provision for seeding perennial cover and with few or no conservation benefits.

Fortunately, the Soil Bank lasted only a few years and was replaced by a more popular option called the Conservation Reserve (CR), requiring the establishment of perennial cover on all enrolled fields. Farmers responded positively to the CR by enrolling nearly 10 million acres of cropland in 1959.

Enrollment in the CR peaked in 1960 at slightly more than 13 million acres and remained popular with producers until the late 1960s. Studies in Michigan, Utah, and South Dakota showed that grassland birds (including pheasants) responded positively to the program.

The early success of the CR program laid the groundwork for more recent conservation Farm Bill programs, which have played an integral role in the economic vitality and general well-being of America’s farmers, ranchers, and non-industrial private foresters.

In addition, they have improved conservation on private land by enhancing and protecting fish and wildlife habitat, reducing soil erosion rates, and improving water quality. The increased role and importance of con- servation in agriculture and its role in private land stewardship has led to consensus and partnerships among government and private interests, including commodity groups, individual producers, livestock organizations, sportsmen, and others in the wildlife conservation community.

Congress recognized the success of and demand for these conservation programs when it passed the 2002 Farm Bill with an 80 percent increase above the conservation baseline in the 1996 bill. Congress increased the acreage caps for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and the Wetlands Reserve Program. It also increased funding for the Wildlife Habitat Incentive and Environmental Quality Incentives Programs. And it created new programs, including the Grassland Reserve and the Conservation Security Programs.

No program in history has done more for landscape-level conservation of soil, water, and wildlife habitat on farmland, while offering producers a significant and stable source of income than the CRP. The CRP not only reduces erosion, but also provides habitat for many species of wildlife across the country. It has been especially important where cropland replaced native grassland on marginal soils.

Across the Great Plains states, grassland loss continues at alarming rates. In the Prairie Pothole Region—which includes portions of Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana—60 million acres (67 percent) of the original 90 million acres of native grassland have been converted to other land uses.

The 4.7 million acres of CRP within this landscape have helped to recapture the wildlife, soil, and water-quality values of grassland, but more grassland restoration through CRP is needed to ensure that these public benefits are sustainable.

Most of the benefits to grassland birds from the CRP have occurred where entire crop fields were restored to native prairie grasses and forbs. CRP fields planted to a mixture of grasses and forbs provided outstanding habitat for grassland birds. Fields planted to trees or single species of grass failed to show any significant value for wildlife.

CRP is a proven, results-oriented conservation program that has accomplished a variety of positive outcomes for wildlife habitat. Research has proved that putting land into CRP has resulted in measurable benefits to wildlife populations in many areas of the country. A few examples to demonstrate this fact are:

  • During 1992-1997, nest success of five common duck species was 46 percent higher with CRP on the landscape in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, compared to a simulated scenario where existing CRP was replaced with cropland.
    CRP is a proven, results-oriented conservation program that has accomplished a variety of positive outcomes for wildlife habitat.
  • During 1990-1994, nest success of female pheasants in north-central Iowa was 40 percent higher in large blocks of CRP than in smaller fragmented nesting cover types like roadsides and fence lines. When CRP acreage was enrolled in large fields, pheasant populations were 53 percent greater compared to no CRP.
  • Pheasant numbers increased by 34 percent in Iowa counties with more than
70 percent cropland and by 26 percent in counties with 50-70 percent cropland. During the 5-year period of this study, 2.2 million acres—6 percent of Iowa’s land base—were enrolled in CRP. A change in pheasant numbers was not detected during the same period in counties with less than 50 percent cropland.

These studies document positive impacts of CRP on wildlife populations. Overall, the collection of scientific evidence demonstrates that CRP has been a major contributor to helping many species of waterfowl rebound to record levels following the return of precipitation to the northern prairies in 1993. In Canadian prairies that lack conservation cover programs, waterfowl nesting success and population growth remain low, further substantiating CRP’s wildlife benefits.

CRP has been a boon to pheasant populations throughout the Plains states and the Midwest. Non-game grassland birds—one of the fastest declining groups of birds in the country—have also responded positively to the habitat afforded by CRP, staving off declines that could lead to increased listings of threatened and endangered species.

CRP has helped many farmers diversify their income sources through incorporating grass agriculture and outdoor recreation-based businesses into their operations. Some have decided to use CRP to help make the transition from cropping to ranching. Many others are using available incentive programs to install grazing systems on expiring CRP. Others are using CRP payments to stabilize their financial situation and pay off debt.

As of May 2003, portions of more than 400,000 farms have enrolled in CRP across the nation. CRP remains very popular in prairie states like Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota where portions of more
than 20,000 farms in each of these states have enrolled in CRP. Demand for CRP is three times higher than authorized acreage. Clearly, CRP remains a very popular program among agricultural operators.

CRP benefits don’t stop with wildlife habi-
tat and soil conservation. CRP lands remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, sequester significant amounts of carbon underground in the extensive root systems of perennial grasses, and prevent nutrient runoff into waterways.

Recovering wildlife populations attract hunters, fishermen, and wildlife watchers across the nation, generating millions of dollars and jobs for rural economies. Many producers have opened up the land they have enrolled in CRP to public access for hunting and fishing, improving relationships among land- owners, state fish and wildlife agencies, and sportsmen.

CRP was once hailed by a Fish and Wildlife Service director as “Noah’s Ark for fish and wildlife.” When viewed alongside the suite
 of other Farm Bill conservation programs, it immediately becomes clear that we’re seeing Noah’s Ark and a formidable flotilla.

Our elected officials have the ability to broaden the size of both the individual boats and the overall fleet. It is my hope that Congress realizes the value of the passengers these vessels carry on board.

America will benefit greatly from truly conservative agricultural policies that reward farmers, ranchers, and non-industrial timberland owners for practicing good stewardship on their lands. Such policies strengthen rural economies, provide more opportunities for sportsmen, and protect America’s vital natural capital of fertile soil and clean water.