Easement programs have provided major public and ecological benefits by preventing fragmentation and conversion of remaining unaltered prairies.
Agricultural programs and policies, particularly at the federal level, present both benefits and challenges to the natural landscapes, aquatic environments and wildlife populations of the Central Great Plains. Subsidies for corn ethanol production, for example, can drive conversion of native grasslands to row-crop production, one of the most widespread and devastating ecological threats to grasslands. Similarly, subsidies that make crop insurance more affordable also make farming in areas of marginal production potentially less risky, and therefore foster the destruction of native prairie habitats.
Conversely, easement programs (such as those offered through USDA’s Farm & Ranchland Protection Program, Grassland Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program) have provided major public and ecological benefits by preventing fragmentation and conversion of remaining unaltered prairies. This method of conservation aligns with the goals of many who want to maintain the unfragmented nature of the prairie while preserving its ranching heritage and economic base.
Presently, more than 200,000 acres are protected by conservation easements in the Central Great Plains Grasslands Initiative project areas; but this represents only a miniscule advancement toward the large landscape-scale approach necessary to achieve meaningful conservation in this vast region. Ongoing encroachment of cropland conversion, energy development, urban sprawl, exurban development, and subdivision continue to degrade the ecological health of the Central Great Plains. Addressing these issues demands solutions that simultaneously support the wellbeing of the region’s economies, cultures and natural landscapes. In addition to building and maintaining close partnerships with private landowners, major components of the solution are held within the Farm Bill.
Putting an ecologically-friendly Farm Bill to work requires that the Conservancy and its partners work together to address:
- federal policy at the congressional level;
- funding through Congress and agency budgets;
- rule-making processes at the agency level;
- implementation through both national and local process, as well as on-the-ground work with agency staff and landowners.
Success in this realm demands investments of staff time, travel and other resources. Failure would entail major setbacks for conservation in the Central Great Plains. The Farm Bill and other state and federal programs offer important opportunities that must not be squandered.