Desperate days for CRP, wildlife, hunters

[box]Submitted by the OWAA National Affairs and Environment Committee[/box]
By Dave Nomsen
Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s Vice President of Government Relations
Last week, I helped my 23-year-old son, Jason, move to Pierre, S.D., to begin his first job out of college. As you might expect, being the son of a wildlife biologist, Jason is an avid bird hunter who barely can contain his enthusiasm for moving to America’s pheasant capital.
“Dad, I looked it up on the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks website and there are walk-in lands within minutes of my office,” beamed Jason while riding shotgun somewhere east of Wheaton, Minn. “I can hunt roosters, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens virtually every day after work. I’m betting I’ll be able to find a few sloughs holding ducks and honkers not too far away either. This hunting season is going to be epic.”
As the rows of corn and beans passed along across western Minnesota through eastern South Dakota, it occurred to me that Jason has never known a time without the Conservation Reserve Program. In fact, when Jason was most impressionable as a teenage hunter in 2007, pheasant numbers soared to 40- and 60-year record highs thanks to a CRP program with 39.2 million acres under contract.
As those miles passed by outside the truck, I thought back to the sloughs being burned last autumn and thousands of miles of tile I saw being buried this spring. There was barely a blade of prairie grass or wild flower outside the window for a pheasant to call habitat, and I wondered if Jason would soon know an era without CRP.
As outdoor communicators, you’ve undoubtedly reported on the record high land values and commodity prices influencing land use decisions across America’s farm country. The world’s demand for our corn, bean and wheat fields has clouded judgment for the value of our country’s water, soil, air and wildlife. In a society gorged on instant gratification, our natural resources are perceived to be a long-term investment able to wait until tomorrow. As a biologist, life-long conservationist and hunter, I know this view is faulty and our poor land use decisions today will negatively impact all of us today and well into tomorrow.
In addition to these intensified pressures on our land, CRP also faces the peril of inaction. As I write this, it’s imperative for all of us – conservation groups and outdoors communicators – to put pressure on the United States Congress to take action on a 2012 Farm Bill before the year ends.
If Congress does not act on a Farm Bill during this calendar year, then millions of acres of conservation programs screech to a halt. The USDA’s authority for some programs, like CRP for instance, runs out on Dec. 31, without a new Farm Bill. And without authority to operate programs, critically important acres eligible for continuous CRP enrollment, like buffers, will not be protected.
In other instances, budget baselines have been maxed out for programs like the Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve, effectively shutting those programs down for lack of funding without a new Farm Bill. So in essence, if the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate do not move with purpose to complete a 2012 Farm Bill, the entirety of America’s farmland conservation programs take a giant step toward a Soil Bank-like end.
In support of Congress addressing critical conservation issues in the Farm Bill this year, Pheasants Forever has itemized our top priorities for the legislation.
1. Reauthorize CRP. With approximately 6 million acres set to expire in 2012 and an additional 3 million acres in 2013, CRP is expiring acres at an alarming rate.
2. A Competitive CRP. Pheasants Forever understands and supports the need for an economically competitive and targeted CRP. Conservation programs such as CP33 Buffer Acres, CP37 Duck Nesting Acres, and CP38 SAFE Acres offer the ability to turn every CRP acre into a specifically targeted approach to wildlife conservation and environmental sensitivity, while typically offering producers more competitive rental rates than general CRP contracts.
3. Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) Acres Baseline and Permanent Funding. WRP acts as America’s number one wetlands restoration program. Wetlands are some of the most valuable pieces of land for wildlife and environmental quality. In addition to permanently funded wetlands protections, an acres baseline for this program needs to be established, thereby ensuring a constant minimum of what we can improve upon.
4. Continuation of Open Fields Hunting Access Programs. The Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program is an innovative program used to help fund dwindling public access to private lands, which constitutes the greatest threat to hunting in the United States today.
5. Strengthened “Sodsaver” or Non-cropland Conversion Provisions. Sodsaver provisions would help conserve one of America’s most iconic and threatened ecosystems: our native grasslands. These provisions would save taxpayer dollars and conserve critical habitat while maintaining farmers’ abilities to manage their lands as they see fit.
I remember all too well the state of wildlife populations and habitat in the years prior to CRP’s birth in 1985. As I think about an entire generation of hunters like my son Jason, I’m hopeful that our pre-CRP history has taught us all a lesson we don’t have to re-learn.

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