This commentary was originally published in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader
The 30-plus-year-old Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), the USDA’s flagship conservation program, has been in the news of late in Northern Plains states as farmers and ranchers search for critically needed forage to support livestock operations in a growing drought stricken area. Now that Sonny Perdue has been sworn in as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of the next steps Congress and the Trump administration must take together is to fix CRP.
Created in 1985 as part of the Federal Farm Bill to protect high risk soils from erosion and reduce excess agriculture commodity supplies, today’s CRP has been very successful as a targeted soil, water and wildlife conservation program. Meanwhile, the program still impacts commodity supply control and thus provides price support while offering critical forage and wildlife habitat during periods of drought.
Since it began, CRP has prevented the equivalent of 600 million dump trucks’ worth of topsoil from washing away downstream, helping to keep sediment and fertilizers on farm fields and ensuring cleaner water from our freshwater streams and lakes straight down to the Gulf of Mexico. The program has also evolved through time to directly benefit hunters and anglers; CRP’s enhancement of our nation’s fish and wildlife resources are on view in Missouri’s bobwhite quail coveys, Montana’s trout fisheries, Colorado’s sharptail grouse leks and Indiana’s woodcock population.
But pheasants are the real poster species for the success of this program, especially in South Dakota, where Secretary Perdue has been known to hunt. Long referred to as the nation’s “Pheasant Capital,” pheasant numbers reached their zenith in South Dakota a decade ago, thanks in large part to 1.5 million acres enrolled in CRP. At that time, pheasant numbers had rebounded to levels not seen since the early 1960s during the soil-bank period, a forerunner of CRP.
In 2007, there were an estimated 11 million pheasants in South Dakota, and the economic benefits to farmers and Main Street businesses came right along with the thrill of hunting such strong pheasant stocks. More than 180,000 hunters — both locals and non-residents — purchased licenses, ammunition, meals and hotel rooms, pumping millions of dollars into the state. When bird populations are healthy, pheasant hunting can bring nearly a quarter of a billion dollars into South Dakota annually and support 4,500 jobs. It’s a model for rural America.
This is why CRP, and its corollary benefits, need support from key decision-makers. The program is at a crossroads, having been decimated by funding cuts and a stifling acreage cap in the 2014 Farm Bill that ignores today’s high demand for CRP. Last year, South Dakota landowners applied to enroll more than 42,000 acres during the regular sign-up for CRP, but only two landowners and 101 acres were accepted.
Let me reiterate that point: Only two South Dakota landowners were accepted into CRP during a nationwide signup.
Nationwide, more than 20,000 offers were rejected. The loss of this habitat has led to a significant decline in wildlife populations, especially for game species like pheasants. It has been estimated there are at least three million fewer pheasants now than in 2007.
Robust funding and acreage allowance for CRP also has the potential to benefit livestock producers in places like South Dakota. Another half-million acres right now would mean critical forage for livestock producers, as well as creating more habitat for hunters this fall.
CRP is the most successful conservation program in the history of the U.S. Never has a single program resulted in so many diverse benefits to the environment, family farms and ranches, Main Street businesses and those of us who live to hunt and fish. Unlike many federal programs, the American taxpayer gets their money’s worth when we invest in CRP.
Secretary Perdue, the Trump administration and Congress should prioritize significantly increasing the CRP acreage cap in the next farm bill and ensure there’s strong funding to deliver the program on the ground.
Without that support, we stand to lose too much in farm income, soil health, clean water, and the nation’s fish and wildlife resources.
CRP works. Let’s make it even stronger.
Howard Vincent is President and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.