BWSR: CREP payment rates falling off pace

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

St. Paul – The follow-up to the wildly successful Conservation
Reserve Enhancement Program isn’t progressing as smoothly.

In a bonding bill passed last year (such bills typically are
passed in even-numbered years), legislators appropriated $23
million for the first phase of a second round of CREP, and there
was an assumption another $30.15 million – which together would
conserve 120,000 acres of land in the southeast, southwest, and
northwest – would be available this year.

The $53.15 million state investment would leverage about $200
million in federal funds.

But legislators are concerned at the rate the Minnesota Board of
Water and Soil Resources is spending its initial $23 million, said
Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, who chairs the House Capital Investment
Committee.

So far, about $1 million of that has been obligated, and another
$2 million is in applications that are pending.

‘Members have concerns that last year’s appropriations are not
being spent,’ Dorman said. ‘There are so many other good things we
can do with the dollars.’

The House, in its bonding proposal, is seeking $2.7 million for
CREP, while the program isn’t funded in a Senate proposal at all.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty had asked for the full $30.15 million.

Dorman said he included CREP in the House bill as a
‘placeholder’ so a conference committee could consider at what
level to fund it.

Ron Harnack, BWSR executive director, disputes the notion that
signups are slow.

‘In many people’s minds, they are,’ he said. ‘Not necessarily in
mine.’

Signups are at about the same level they were at this time
during the 100,000-acre Minnesota River CREP, said Kevin Lines,
BWSR Conservation Easement Program coordinator.

BWSR officials acknowledge selling to landowners CREP II is
trickier than was selling the first round. At the time, landowners
didn’t have the Conservation Reserve Program option. Too, land
values have increased considerably and CREP payment rates haven’t
kept pace.

‘Right now we are trying to look at that competitive edge,’
Lines said. ‘We need to re-evaluate what we are doing, at least
from a payment-rate structure.

‘I’m not pessimistic at all. I strongly believe if we can give
landowners a competitive rateŠ that we can be successful.’

The current CREP – authorized through the life of the current
farm bill, which ends Dec. 31, 2007 – covers three areas of the
state: 51,000 acres in all or part of 17 counties in the southeast;
18,000 acres in all or part of nine counties in the southwest; and
51,000 acres in all or part of 21 counties in the Red River
Valley.

Most of those acres will be in 45-year easements, though 29,000
wetland acres will be protected by perpetual easements. During the
first CREP, all landowners had the option of permanent
easements.

There have been other technical changes between CREP I and CREP
II, like a new Farm Service Agency process, Harnack said.

‘It’s taken a little longer to get the kinks out of the
program,’ he said. ‘It’s still a darn good buy for the state. We
need to adjust the state payment rates a bit to be competitive. But
that said, when you can leverage that many federal dollars and get
that many acres at less than half the price the state would pay
alone, it’s an excellent buy for the state.’

No matter what happens in the conference committee, it’s
probably unrealistic to believe legislators this session will
appropriate the full $30.15 million to CREP, Dorman said.

Depending on what’s appropriated this year, BWSR likely would
ask next session for the additional money to fully fund the program
and meet the 120,000-acre goal, Harnack said.

‘I think that’s got to be our goal,’ he said.

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