DU: Strip subsidies for prairie-busters

By Joe Albert Staff Writer

Bismarck, N.D. — Current provisions in the Farm Bill are
contributing to the loss in the Prairie Pothole Region of the
native prairie important to duck production, according to Ducks
Unlimited.

The group is aiming to change that in the 2007 federal Farm Bill
with an amendment known as “Sodsaver,” which would remove
incentives for converting native prairie to cropland.

While the conversions are taking place in the Dakotas and
Montana, the loss affects sportsmen elsewhere, too, according to
Ryan Heiniger, DU director of conservation programs for Minnesota
and Iowa.

“It has direct implications on the nesting success in that
landscape, which translates into what we see over our decoys,” he
said.

About 22 million acres of native prairie remain in the PPR;
about 1 million of those are protected in perpetuity.

The unprotected acres are under assault because of Farm Bill
provisions that provide a financial safety net – and sufficient
financial incentive – to producers who convert native prairie to
cropland. Sod busting is even more attractive when Farm Bill
provisions are coupled with high commodity prices and new varieties
of crops that can grow in dry or rocky areas, according to Jim
Ringelman, DU director of conservation programs for the Dakotas and
Montana.

The convergence of factors has led to U.S. taxpayers indirectly
subsidizing the breakup of native prairie, he said.

The Sodsaver provision still would allow farmers, if they
choose, to convert prairie to crops. But farmers wouldn’t have the
same price supports and risk protection they do under the current
Farm Bill.

It’s a “free-market approach,” Ringelman said, because farmers
still could grow crops, but the profitability of them would depend
on the market, not subsidies or disaster payments.

“If you (break up native prairie), do it in a free market that
is not subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer,” he said. “We think this
will motivate these producers to think twice about, ‘Is this good
soil? Am I in a suitable growing climate?’”

A provision similar to Sodsaver, proposed during discussions
about the 2002 Farm Bill, was estimated to save about $1.4 billion
over 10 years.

The provision was close to being included in that bill, but
ultimately wasn’t, Ringelman said.

In some parts of South Dakota, particularly Hyde and Hand
counties in the central part of the state, as much as 2.5 percent
of the native prairie is converted each year to cropland. While the
acreage that’s lost each year might seem small, “the compounding
effect is pretty dramatic,” he said.

At a conversion rate of 2.5 percent per year, half of the
prairie in the Pothole Region would be gone in 34 years, according
to DU.

Of the 13.8 million acres of prairie that remain in the eastern
Dakotas, about 298,000 acres were converted to croplands between
2002 and 2005. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the
fall flight of ducks will decline by 25,000 for each 1 percent of
native prairie lost in the PPR.

The losses in central South Dakota are particularly alarming, DU
says, because the area boasts some of the highest densities of
breeding northern pintails in the world. Pintail numbers are well
below the goals set forth in the North American Waterfowl
Management Plan.

“We’re really concerned about what sodbusting might mean for the
future of northern pintails,” Ringelman said.

Conversations about the Sodsaver proposal began in the
conservation community, and have included members of the
agricultural community. The provision would keep the prairie in
grass-based agriculture and help livestock producers – most native
prairie is used for grazing – because crop producers, due to
subsidies, have an economic advantage over livestock producers,
Ringelman said.

“Frankly, the good (cropland) has been discovered and plowed
up,” he said. “We think there has to be an economic use for native
prairie,” which is livestock production.

DU believes the Sodsaver provision stands a good chance of being
included in the next Farm Bill, and officials say there hasn’t been
stiff opposition yet to the idea.

“This is really an issue in terms of what the future of the
prairie will look like,” Ringelman said.

The 2007 Farm Bill

In addition to Sodsaver, DU is concentrating on three other
programs for the next Farm Bill:

  • CRP. Contracts on about 28 million of the 36 million acres are
    set to expire between 2007 and 2010. Changes to the scoring process
    are necessary to make the PPR competitive in future signups,
    according to DU.
  • WRP. The program is authorized to enroll up to 250,000 acres
    per year, but the program will cease to exists after 2006 unless
    the program is reauthorized and the acreage cap is increased,
    according to DU. (See WRP story Page 1.)
  • Maintain protection measures that prevent conversion of
    wetlands, the group says.
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