Editor's Note: Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer announced Tuesday afternoon, July 29, that no penalty-free opt-outs for acres currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program will be allowed this year. This was published as a letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register on July 24. Good news for conservation efforts on land enrolled in the conservation reserve program.
Conservation is about investing in the future on a number of levels. We talk about passing on our land and waters to the next generation. We want our children to have a future on the land, in the region and on this planet. There is much to weigh, including the future of one of the most successful conservation programs in our nation’s history – the Conservation Reserve Program.
The CRP safeguards our nation’s natural resources and has protected millions of acres of American topsoil from erosion. The CRP helps to protect our water supplies and improve the quality of lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams through reducing water runoff and sedimentation.
Landowners or farmers with CRP contracts are paid by the federal government to not plant crops on the land for a certain number of years. Much of the land was put into the program because it was highly erodible, marginally productive, environmentally sensitive or in a flood plain. Some of the land is used as buffer strips along streams and rivers. To date, 1.8 million acres out of a total of 27.2 million acres of Iowa cropland are enrolled in the program.
Nationwide, 2 million acres in CRP serves as wetlands and buffers to more than 170,000 miles of stream banks. On these lands and waters, pheasant, ducks and fish have flourished because of improved water quality and increased habitat bringing recreational dollars to our rural economies. Each year, 87 million Americans spend $120.1 billion to recreate in natural areas.
Just one acre of healthy wetlands can also store up to 1.5 million gallons of floodwater according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Wetlands and filter strips also control the velocity of water from fields and tile line drainage prior to entering streams and rivers. We can protect water quality and help to control floodwaters by protecting and restoring wetlands. As nature’s sponge, wetlands can retain our excess water, filter out nutrients and sediment and help us conserve topsoil. Through these CRP lands, farmers and ranchers have reduced soil erosion by more than 40 percent.
Global commodities markets are not dependent on the land in CRP. Many more factors contribute to this global economic picture, including the devalued American dollar and the bargain prices for our commodities in countries like China and India. Let’s not sacrifice our most highly erodible, environmentally sensitive or least productive lands, or our soils and water quality for a minimal short-term gain fraught with unintended consequences.
Our land, soils, water and wildlife are at stake here in Iowa. A policy change being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer would allow farmers to prematurely terminate their CRP contracts without paying back the government in order to plant corn and soybeans on highly erodible and environmentally sensitive lands. This would be a short-term gain in production for a long-term loss of soil, water quality and wildlife habitat that shortchanges American taxpayers in the process.
We agree that we need to fairly compensate farmers, ranchers and landowners for their enormous contribution to conservation in Iowa. As we evaluate the CRP program through the Farm Bill, we encourage opportunities to strengthen the program to better reflect commodity prices. At the same time, we should recognize the long-term investment that we are making in the land through the CRP and other conservation programs and the value that environmental services provide.
There are many solutions and opportunities that can benefit both conservationists and farmers who are working to make Iowa more sustainable environmentally and economically. However, releasing CRP lands early is not an economically viable, long-term solution and would shortchange future generations of Iowans.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.