Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Alternative energy: new CRP threat?

By Tim
Spielman
Associate Editor

Washington — As United States leaders look for ways to reduce
the country’s dependence on foreign energy sources, wildlife and
habitat may be unlikely victims, conservation groups fear.

That’s why a collection of 22 fish and wildlife groups and
agencies have asked Congress for a voice in discussions regarding
the upcoming 2007 farm bill, which, they say, likely will include a
section dedicated to energy, specifically biofuels derived from
U.S.-raised crops like corn and soybeans.

Could grasses grown on set-aside conservation acres be at risk?
If that were the case, the federal Conservation Reserve Program
would be in the crosshairs, according to Lynn Tjeerdsma, policy
initiatives manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation
Partnership.

“Conservation groups certainly are in favor of alternative fuels
and we want to do our part, but let’s do the research (and) not
throw away 20 years,” Tjeerdsma said of the 20-year-old CRP
program. in which there currently are about 36 million acres
enrolled.

Most discussion has been of an off-handed nature, he said. But
when the possibility of tapping more land for alternative fuel
sources is raised, CRP, with its massive enrollment and stands of
switchgrass, often is the focus of speculation.

“The assumption is, the land is already idle, and the majority
is planted to grasses,” he said.

Tjeerdsma said most CRP plantings usually now include a variety
of plants, including switchgrass as well as something like alfalfa,
to make it appealing to a variety of wildlife. For biofuel,
switchgrass alone demonstrates the most potential. In fact, it may
be more desirable than corn. That’s because it’s a perennial,
Tjeerdsma said. Corn, on the other hand, requires the use of fossil
fuels to produces – fuel in equipment to till, plant, fertilize,
harvest, etc. Corn is rated at 30 percent efficient, he said.

Switchgrass, on the other had, may be productive up to 10 years,
and Tjeerdsma said, has the highest weight per acre of the useful
perennial grasses.

Could farm bill rules be revised exposing CRP to switchgrass
production? That’s what conservation groups want to avoid, and a
subject that’s been bandied about on Capitol Hill.

According to Jim Wiesemeyer, a columnist for AgWeb.com, “Some
observers pushing for U.S. energy independence are discussing using
the CRP to grow and harvest biomass crops such as switchgrass that
could be used to produce ethanol and other biofuels … other groups
are concerned that should the CRP be revised, it could turn 15
million acres or more over to biofuel production, something they
say could undermine the program’s ability to protect soil and water
quality and create wildlife habitat.”

Letter to Congress

In reaction to rumors of the possible altering of the CRP, the
TRCP, along with more than 20 other conservation organizations,
sent a letter to members of Congress asking that their view be
represented regarding discussion of alternative energy sources and
conservation programs.

“We are writing to express our concern about proposals that have
surfaced recently which call for using lands enrolled in USDA
conservation programs (CRP is the largest, but others could be
affected), especially the CRP, for the production of biofuels,” the
letter states. “ … We share your concerns and those of nearly every
American that the thirst for the world’s shrinking supply of fossil
fuels is pushing the United States dangerously close to economic
harm and dependency on often volatile foreign sources of
energy.”

According to the letter, the country currently has about 400
million acres of cropland “and some of the world’s most productive
farms.”

“But, we are concerned that in the rush to produce biofuels
crops, we may inadvertently sacrifice many of the natural resource
conservation victories achieved over the past two decades.”

The TRCP and other letter signatories note that most at risk are
the wildlife benefits of CRP, which aren’t compatible with frequent
harvest. Further, “impacts of increased stubble removal and
diminished vegetative cover as they relate to wildlife, soil, water
quality and quantity must be determined before land enrolled in
conservation programs, like CRP, are considered as a source of
biomass production.”

Tjeerdsma said he hopes the conservation groups are able to work
alongside groups pushing heavily for alternative fuel sources,
including the “25 by ’25” working group whose goal is 25 percent
alternative fuel sources by the year 2025.

Leaders of the 25 by ’25 Initiative recently announced that
members of Congress – including Minnesota Reps. Collin Peterson and
Gil Gutknecht, along with Sen. Norm Coleman – signed onto
resolutions that reflect the group’s goal.

“Careful selection of appropriate lands for biomass production
is critical if you are to craft a successful alternative energy
policy that ensures we sustain our current economical food supply,
positive balance of agricultural trade, gains in quality habitat
and wildlife numbers, and improving water and soil quality,” the
letter says. “ … We look forward to being included as a part of the
‘energy solution’ and respectfully request that you utilize our
wildlife-, habitat-, and conservation-based expertise and
research-based data; and consult with us in future biofuels
discussions and policy decisions.”

Groups signing the letter, including the Association of Fish and
Wildlife Agencies, the Izaak Walton League of America, The Nature
Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Wildlife
Management Institute, Pheasants Forever, and others, also said that
risking wildlife benefits also “jeopardizes the $67.5 billion and
575,000 jobs that hunting and related activities annually add to
the U.S. economy.”

The possibility of CRP and other conservation programs being
sacrificed in the name of alternative energy follows on the heals
of a CRP signup period with less-than-desirable results, Tjeerdsma
said. Officials said that could be attributed to a number of
factors, including rising farm values and rent payments, and the
possible windfall from biofuel demand.

Some CRP contract holders also were offered extensions at the
rates they had been receiving.

The 2002 Farm Bill expires Sept. 30, 2007. Tjeerdsma said it’s
likely a new farm bill will be signed by next summer, but
discussion won’t heat up until after the fall election.

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