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CRP - 26 Years and Counting

CRP - 26 Years and Counting

by Matt Smith, Biologist
Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism

The 1985 Farm Bill established what was to become the nation’s most successful voluntary conservation program ever: the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)! The CRP was initially developed to address soil erosion at a time when soil was being lost at over 3 billion tons per year. During this period there were vast amounts of wetland drainage occurring, water quality was deteriorating, and many species of wildlife were in peril due to loss of habitat. The CRP we have today has evolved to equally address water quality and wildlife habitat along with soil erosion.

lesser prairie-chickenCRP takes marginal and sensitive land out of agricultural production and offers landowners an annual rental payment to establish and maintain vegetative cover for 10-15 years. Lands enrolled in CRP are often labeled as “idle, retired, or non-working lands.” These terms are mistakenly applied as CRP lands are far from being idle or unproductive. The facts, based on several independent studies, tell a different story. For example, CRP areas in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana created habitat that led to a net increase of about two million ducks per year since 1992. Researchers found that, in prime pheasant habitat, a 4 percent increase in CRP cover was associated with a 22 percent increase in pheasant counts. Northern Bobwhite Quail are found significantly more in CRP areas with certain grass covers than sites without these practices. Improvements to water quality from CRP result from the 278 million pounds less nitrogen and 59 million pounds less phosphorus that enter waterways each year. CRP has reduced soil erosion by an estimated 470 million tons from pre-CRP levels and CRP sequesters more carbon than any other federally administered program, an estimated 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide was stopped from entering the environment in 2007 due to grass cover established on CRP lands.

native warm season grassesKansans can take pride in their own CRP success story. When CRP began in 1985, policymakers in Kansas made a critical decision which had major implications for the future of wildlife in Kansas. Kansas determined the most beneficial cover for CRP lands in the state would be mixes of warm-season native grasses, the same predominate grasses that are found in our native grasslands. This decision was not met with unanimous support. Native grasses were expensive and at the time in short supply. Practical experience in establishing those native grasses was lacking and many reasoned the CRP, like others that came before, would not be around long enough to warrant the cost of an expensive grass mix only to see it broken out again in the future. But Kansas held fast to its decision and 26 years later, the investment has paid off.

map showing pre-CRP lesser prairie-chicken range in KansasDuring the late 1990s, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) began documenting the presence of the lesser prairie-chicken in areas they formerly occupied in southwest Kansas, but had not been seen for over 60 years. This significant expansion of their range was due to the nesting cover native grasses in CRP provided. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) and its partners in Kansas have been targeting CRP enrollment within the historic range of the LPC since 1996 by establishing Conservation Priority Areas which fostered CRP enrollment in critical areas.

map showing CRP Conservation Priority Areas and expanded lesser prairie-chicken rangeThe potential loss of CRP in southwest Kansas as contracts expire and are not re-enrolled has heightened the concern for listing the species under protection of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Threatened and Endangered Species Act. Large scale efforts are currently underway to bring additional resources to this critical landscape to help landowners keep CRP in grass and develop prescribed grazing plans designed to benefit prairie chickens.

Of course those that love to hunt upland birds know how valuable CRP is during their favorite season. Over 50 percent of the one million acres of land enrolled in KDWPT’s popular Walk-In Hunting Areas Program are CRP lands. Kansas upland bird hunters spend about $121.3 million annually in support of their hunting activities, making the public investment in CRP a good one for the rural economies struggling in the current economic downturn and located where most hunting occurs.

pheasant huntersDespite its unprecedented success, CRP was targeted for reduction in the 2008 Farm Bill. Authorized enrollment for the program dropped from 39.2 million acres to 32 million. There was even discussion during the 2008 authorization process of eliminating CRP. To gauge the impacts to the agricultural sector from eliminating the program, a study conducted by the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center predicted an additional cost to the government of $32.6 million over the 2007-2015 study period due to an increase in farm program spending if CRP was eliminated. Alternatively, the study also predicted if the CRP statutory limit was raised to 39.2 million acres, by 2015 it would raise net farm income by $600 million. If the limit was raised to 45 million acres, by 2015 net farm income would increase by $1.7 billion.

As the budget debates continue in Washington, it’s unclear what the 2012 Farm Bill will look like during times of declining budgets and increased agricultural and environmental challenges, with crop prices at historically high levels for the foreseeable future, and with an ever increasing world demand for food products. As environmental problems such as changing climate and strains on our water resources continue to mount, what is clear is the investment the public has made in protecting our natural resources will be lost if we retreat from our current path of conservation commitments. Now, more than ever, we need to strengthen our support of the ecological functions that ensure the health and production capacity of our agricultural systems.

Agricultural conservation programs have provided fish and wildlife habitat, reduced soil erosion, enhanced agricultural productivity, and increased financial returns to rural communities. Every year, over 87.5 million Americans participate in hunting and angling, part of an outdoor recreation industry that supports 9.4 million non-exportable jobs, returns over $107 billion in federal, state, and local taxes and provides a total economic activity of $1.06 trillion. On private lands, Farm Bill programs are one of the keys in sustaining this economic activity.

For more information about CRP, CCRP, or natural resources conservation, please contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office or conservation district office. The office is located at your local U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at offices.usda.gov). More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov. Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

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