Expectations high for third CREP

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr explained his agency’s plans for the 60,000-acre Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in Minnesota. (Rob Drieslein photo)

St. Paul — After the state of Minnesota made official a third edition of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, expectations were predictably mixed. After all, the first version of the program that uses state and federal funds to allow voluntary enrollment of private land in the conservation was considered a success. CREP II, however, was quite the opposite.

Indications, thus far, are that the program’s results will more likely mirror the first program that kicked off in the late 1990s.

“We’re expecting a lot of landowner demand for this CREP,” said Bill Penning, conservation easement section manager for the state Board of Water and Soil Resources, which administers the program. Reports from those who’ll be dealing directly with landowners – local Soil and Water Conservation District officials – indicate a high level of interest.

There’s been “a steady stream of landowners inquiring,” Penning said.

CREP III isn’t an inexpensive undertaking. In fact, it might be the most expensive such venture in the country to date. In order to enroll about 60,000 acres of private land in perpetual conservation easements, the state of Minnesota will need to pony up about $150 million. Those dollars will be matched with about $350 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That proved enticing for state officials.

“It’s a heck of a leverage opportunity,” said Tim Koehler, senior programs advisor for BWSR. “It’s a heck of an opportunity.”

According to BWSR, the program will “prioritize water quality and habitat through restoration and protection of marginal cropland using the following conservation practices: buffer strips, wetland restoration, and wellhead protection areas.”

The program combines the federal Conservation Reserve Program with the state’s Reinvest in Minnesota easement program.

Originally, state agencies, including BWSR and the DNR, as well as conservation groups that partner with them in making CREP reality, sought a goal of 100,000 acres – like CREP I. However, the scaled-back version is a compromise reached with federal officials, Penning said.

For one thing, the Conservation Reserve Program, which now includes a number of “sub-programs,” is capped at about 24 million acres nationwide, a requirement of the most recent multi-year federal farm bill. As recently as 2007 CRP acreage peaked at around 37 million acres. Also, the USDA expressed concern about funding levels.

State-side, there’s already some funding banked for CREP, and Gov. Mark Dayton has recommended $30 million in bonding be used to support it this year. Koehler said other contributors to the project will be both the Clean Water Fund and the Outdoor Heritage Funding, both whose dollars are drawn from tax revenue via the Legacy Amendment.

State officials expect the CREP effort to play a role as this year requirements of Dayton’s buffer initiative kick in. Though that plan is a couple years in the making, some legislators continue to oppose the initiative, which aims to create vegetative buffers along Minnesota waterways. Those lawmakers seek compensation for farmers and other landowners who will be required to comply with buffer laws.

Unlike previous CREP plans, this third round will be simple, targeted, and directed at locations where water quality is a concern, Penning said. While the first CREP nearly 20 years ago included some big chunks of land, that won’t be the case this time, he said.

Penning said during the first 30 years of the state RIM program, some 7,500 conservation easements have been established. For CREP III alone, he expects in the neighborhood of about 4,000 such contracts. A wetland easement might include, for example, 100 acres. However, there probably will be many contracts that include just 10 acres of buffer strip, he said.

“We’re expecting to do a vast number of easements,” Penning said.

While past CREPs have emphasized wildlife habitat with a secondary clean water focus, No. 3 will flip those priorities. However, they go hand in hand, officials say.

“For everything we’re doing, we can accomplish both tasks,” Penning said.

In a press release following the announcement of the agreement last week, Dayton offered this: “Minnesota is at a critical juncture in addressing our state’s serious water quality challenges. Through this landmark agreement, Minnesota will be better able to protect and improve our waters for our families, natural habitat, and our future. Clean water is everyone’s challenge, and everyone’s responsibility.”

A little CREP history

Kevin Lines, currently coordinating the DNR’s Pheasant Action Plan, was with BWSR during the first two CREP efforts. While much has changed since CREP I came to be in 1998, he said the similarities with the first program are much greater than they are with CREP II.

Lines was a conservation easement manager with BWSR back then, the position occupied by Penning today.

The concept came from the 1996 farm bill, Lines said. “It was a brand new thing.”

But it fit nicely with the state’s RIM program. And by 2002, the initial CREP in Minnesota had enrolled around 100,000 through 2,500 conservation easements with landowners. Of those, Lines added, 98 percent were permanent easements, the bulk of them in the Minnesota River watershed, an area former Gov. Arne Carlson had made a priority for clean-up.

Times weren’t great on the farm in the mid-1990s. Land values were low, as were crop prices. And a couple significant flood events within the Minnesota River watershed had exposed vulnerabilities. “We knew where the problems were,” Lines said.

The farm economy made the CREP program a worthy alternative to production.

“I don’t want to say it was easy, because at the time there were a lot of people who thought we wouldn’t achieve our 100,000-acre goal,” he said. “I didn’t feel that way.”

Following Carlson’s gubernatorial tenure, the political winds shifted a bit, with Gov. Jesse Ventura taking the helm in 1999. However, he, too, was a supporter of CREP, Lines said.

All told, the state provided about $80 million in funding for that program, matched by federal funding of about $165 million, making the program cost about $2,500 per acre enrolled. By contrast, that amount will be over $8,000 this time around, tracking increased farmland values.

In recent years, crop prices – corn and beans, primarily – have dropped. At the same time, previously surging land prices have gone the opposite direction – a situation much like that of the CREP I era.

As CREP II was gearing up, Tim Pawlenty became the state’s governor in 2003. Lines said the political climate was less friendly for the program, and farm groups began to challenge the concept. Eventually, the permanent easement option was scrapped. Instead, long-term easement options were offered.

To further seal CREP II’s fate, both commodity prices and land values were rising. Federal CRP rental rates had failed to keep up.

In the end, only 7,000 acres were enrolled in three project areas. The goal at the outset was 120,000 acres. “It was very disappointing,” Lines said.

The future

While Lines said the stars seem to be aligning for CREP III success, conservation at several levels needs a boost.

“CRP is still the most important private lands program by far, but we need to grow it again,” he said, referring to the current nationwide acreage cap.

“I have no doubt in my mind that this CREP will be successful,” Lines said. “I believe farmers and landowners will make good decisions for both them and for their bottom lines.”

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