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Published April 26, 2010, 01:07 PM

Cooperation needed for conservation

WASHINGTON — An Illinois farmer at President Obama’s White House Conference on the Great Outdoors on April 16 suggested that farmers who get money from the government for conservation purposes should be given incentives to invite nonfarmers, especially children, onto that land.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — An Illinois farmer at President Obama’s White House Conference on the Great Outdoors on April 16 suggested that farmers who get money from the government for conservation purposes should be given incentives to invite nonfarmers, especially children, onto that land.

During a panel discussion chaired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Ray McCormick, the operator of a 3,500-acre grain and woodland family farm in southern Indiana and Illinois, said the scoring system used in the application process could include points for commitments to allow urban people to visit the land and learn about agriculture. In a discussion about how few young people have any experience with the land and agriculture, McCormick noted current rules do not require farmers who get conservation money to allow outsiders on their land, but that farmers might be open to the idea if USDA initiated it.

“There are opportunities to bring young people out there,” McCormick said.

Others at the conference noted that farmers fear liability if a visitor should be injured on their property, but that some states have changed their liability laws to ease such concerns.

Vilsack did not react to McCormick’s suggestion. A USDA spokesman said afterward that USDA hopes to move ahead soon with the Voluntarily Public Access Program, which will work with states to create greater opportunities for hunters on conservation lands and that what had been said “could inform our efforts around these issues as we go forward.”

Working together

Attendees said the conference and interagency initiative to increase cooperation among agencies that deal with public and private lands could have benefits for the environment and for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, but the administration has not yet demonstrated that it knows how to make these agencies work together to achieve those goals, according to rural leaders who attended the conference.

Before signing the memo in front of an audience of 500 to 600 environmentalists, farm leaders and antipoverty activists gathered at the Interior Department, Obama said that over the coming months members of his administration will host regional listening sessions across America to meet with everybody from tribal leaders to farmers, from young people to businesspeople, and from elected officials to recreation and conservation groups.

“Their ideas will help us form a 21st century strategy for America’s great outdoors to better protect our natural landscape and our history for generations to come,” Obama said. The agencies are supposed to come up with a plan by Nov. 15.

Most but not all of the people who gathered to watch Obama sign the memo and listen to panel discussions led by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Vilsack appeared to be Democrats.

In interviews, the attendees said they were pleased by the initiative, but unclear about how Obama could achieve the cooperation between public agencies, private landowners, state and local governments and nonprofits groups that they want.

Tools for sustainability

Jimmy Daukus of the American Farmland Trust, which tries to stop the conversion of farmland to residential and commercial development, said there are now plenty of tools such as farmland trusts to stop the conversion, but the question will be whether the administration intensifies its support for them.

Bruce Knight, an Agriculture undersecretary in the Bush administration who is now a private consultant focused on conservation, said he was pleased Vilsack and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson were sharing the same platform and that he took it as a signal that Vilsack could have more influence over some of Jackson’s more unpopular initiatives.

North Dakota Farmers Union President Robert Carlson said he thinks his farm operation is more “sustainable” today than it was when his grandparents homesteaded it in the early 1900s but he noted that farmers like “incentives, not penalties” from the government.

Another participant said he has hopes the conference leads to greater coordination about federal, state, local and nonprofit conservation programs on public and private lands, but that he also is worried that some farmers and other landowners might consider it another level of government intrusion.

The White House conference had its roots in a report on the outdoors that was prepared by a task force composed mostly of former federal and state environmental officials and chaired by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who presented the report to Salazar in July. The report suggested better coordination of conservation programs across agency lines.

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