For much of our country's history, chopping down forests and plowing up prairie were considered patriotic acts. Farming, which rid the earth of so-called non-productive land and transformed it into fields of grain, was a necessary nation-building activity.
It took a few decades, but we finally realized that in our rush to control nature, we misused marginal lands. One result was the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
As we slowly learned that not all land could sustain farming, we also discovered that some non-plowed land could have significant ecological benefits. Recognizing that lesson, a 26-year-old federal effort called the Conservation Reserve Program has been encouraging farmers to set aside their most sensitive lands, protecting them from the plow and planting them with native species. This huge patchwork of unplowed land now spreads over 34 million acres, offering safe havens for sage grouse to nest and deer to raise fawns. It also stops 450 million tons of soil from eroding each year. The farmers who participate sign 10- or 15-year contracts to set aside blocks of farmland in exchange for payment from the government.
These days, however, the Conservation Reserve Program and other little-known but significant conservation programs face severe cuts. The 2012 Farm Bill, which funds subsidies for rural development, hits Congress next year and might well slash conservation funding. Throw in the current record-high commodity prices—which erode support for any program that takes land out of production—and the Conservation Reserve Program, with its yearly price tag of $1.7 billion, faces many threats.
It is also true that though the farmland retirement program has been a huge conservation boon, those who participate in it do not universally love it. Farmers criticize its low payment rates, which are based on rents for cropland at the beginning of a contract period. For example, a farmer in North Dakota who signed up and set aside acreage back in 2001 for $35 an acre, might now be able to farm that land and make $200 an acre growing corn.
Idaho farmer Bill Flory, former chairman of the state's Soil and Water Conservation Commission, also believes that the Conservation Reserve Program, which can enroll up to 25 percent of a county's farmland, harms the economy: "There's been some counties where, basically, production agriculture has been retired from the area...and all the related infrastructure has left."
Still another downside is the cost to conservation when lands flow in and out of production in 10-year increments. Whenever crop prices go up, farmers tend to opt out of the program when their contracts come due. Last year, 4.4 million acres weren't renewed.
Yet wildlife and hunting groups laud the conservation program's success in providing habitat for game birds such as pheasants and ducks, as well as for declining grassland species like the sage grouse and prairie chicken.
Third-generation rancher Tony Malmberg, who raises grass-fed beef in Oregon, thinks the program wastes good land. He wants farmers to be allowed to farm reserved acres, as long as they commit to conservation practices. "The 10 years of payments buy a conservation easement, so this land will be managed sustainably going into the future," Malmberg says.
A recent effort shares this approach; the federal Conservation Stewardship Program pays farmers who implement conservation measures on working lands. It took off after the 2008 Farm Bill, and this July it surpassed the Conservation Reserve Program in size, at 37 million acres. But the stewardship program isn't immune from the cutting bonanza either.
For now, groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation are leading the defense of the Conservation Reserve Program. They say they might be able to accept a slimming of the program's budget, as long as it's done with an eye towards maximizing habitat for sensitive species. Jim Ringelman, who directs conservation programs in the Dakotas and Montana for Ducks Unlimited, says radical cuts are shortsighted, and the ramifications could last long after the current budget crisis.
"CRP has been the most important conservation program in the history of the world," Ringelman says. "There's nothing that compares to it. If we are foolish enough to walk away from it because we think corn prices are going to stay high forever, then we are going to pay the price."
Stephanie Paige Ogburn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), where she is the magazine's online editor.