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Published April 04, 2008, 12:00 AM

Farm bill, CRP get political

Item: The new U.S. Farm Bill — assuming Congress ever passes it — will likely shortchange land stewardship programs (and other titles) to the tune of billions of dollars because Congress cannot figure out a funding formula that appeals to the disparate whims of enough lawmakers. Still — and get this — most officials believe any new Farm Bill will have a new disaster relief title.

By: Babe Winkelman, The Jamestown Sun

Item: The new U.S. Farm Bill — assuming Congress ever passes it — will likely shortchange land stewardship programs (and other titles) to the tune of billions of dollars because Congress cannot figure out a funding formula that appeals to the disparate whims of enough lawmakers.

Still — and get this — most officials believe any new Farm Bill will have a new disaster relief title.

That — and get this — despite record-high commodity prices and mega profits from the agricultural sector.

Item: Yet another study is panning ethanol for causing environmental damage. The rush to produce corn-based ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels, say researchers from the University of Wisconsin and the University of British Columbia, will likely worsen pollution and considerably expand the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The oxygen-depleted dead zone — thought to be the size of Rhode Island — kills fish and aquatic life and God knows what else every year, thanks to increased “nitrogen loading” from farm fields and other sources.

These two items — and I could include several more examples — illustrate how far down the wrong road we’ve traveled to protect our nation’s natural resources. Indeed, conservation is neither a national priority nor, truth be told, a policy objective anymore.

Our policymakers give conservation lip service — and lots of it — particularly when they’re in a room of hunters and anglers. But when the rubber meets the road, when Big Agriculture and others put on a lobbying blitz in Washington D.C., and when lawmakers bow to political pressure, conservation (and, by extension, hunters and anglers) always gets the short end of the stick.

The new Farm Bill, which will eventually pass, will be yet another example, mark my words. It will have some modest victories, as many will point out, but when analyzed in its full context, fish and wildlife will be the big losers, as will hunters and anglers and other outdoor lovers.

Take the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has been called the most successful conservation program in U.S. history. The federal program — which pays landowners to idle marginal cropland — has helped boost pheasant, waterfowl and other wildlife populations and is credited with helping clean the nation’s waterways.

No matter. The new Farm Bill, natural resource officials say, will likely reduce nationwide enrollment acres by as many as seven million acres, perhaps more.

And if you read between the lines, CRP’s future could be worse than many believe or even fathom.

Consider: U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said recently that it would be a “great idea” to allow farmers to grow and harvest switchgrass on land currently enrolled in CRP, roughly 34 million acres nationwide.

The idea would be part of a biofuels program — that is, converting switchgrass to ethanol — despite the fact we do not have the technology to make such a program viable on a commercial scale.

Bad idea? Julie Sibbing, the Farm Bill coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, thinks so. Growing switchgrass on CRP lands would, she says, “completely undermine the purposes of the program.” Sibbing says she supports cellulosic ethanol but not at the expense of CRP. “Any biofuels program with switchgrass or native grasses should not come at the expense of CRP,” she said.

What’s more, the pressure to allow farmers out of their current CRP contracts is growing by the day, thanks to increased demand for ethanol and sky-high commodity prices. Farm groups, with the American Farm Bureau leading charge, are pushing behind the scenes to make CRP a historical artifact.

Even the American Bakers Association — that’s right, the American Bakers Association — is protesting high wheat prices and is lobbying hard for the penalty-free release of CRP acres, though for an entirely different reason than the Farm Bureau. High wheat prices, it seems, mean higher prices for bread and other wheat-based foodstuffs, and the American Bakers Association, which led a protest march recently in Washington D.C., is none too pleased about it.

CRP can’t catch a break, my friends. But if lawmakers can’t see fit to protect and enhance arguably the nation’s most popular and most effective conservation program — well, you get my drift.

Ironically, the loss of thousands of acres of critical habitat comes on the eve of another pheasant hunting season in the Midwest buoyed by record or near-record numbers of ringnecks — populations boosted by CRP acres.

The big question, given the loss of CRP — in 2007 and beyond — is whether hunters will ever see such birds numbers again.

In recent years, mild winter weather has contributed to keeping pheasant numbers high throughout much of the Great Plains. But imagine a couple bad winters coupled with the loss of grasslands, which pheasants and other critters need for nesting.

Then factor in a new Farm Bill — assuming it gets passed‹that will likely cut CRP and other land stewardship programs.

The future? Well, it doesn’t look rosy.

Babe Winkelman is a nationally-known outdoorsman who has taught people to fish and hunt for more than 25 years. Watch the award-winning “Good Fishing” and “Outdoor Secrets” television shows on Versus (formerly OLN), Fox Sports Net, Comcast Southeast, WILD TV and many local networks. Visit www.winkelman.com for air times where you live.

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