Must farmland conservation pay for itself?

Mark Lindquist doesn’t have a crystal ball, but as the Minnesota
DNR’s biofuels program manager, he looks to the future. As corn and
other commodity prices soar in response to demand from ethanol
distilleries, large-scale land conversion is under way across
Minnesota’s agricultural region. Set-aside lands, such as
grasslands enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program,
are returning to cultivation as 10-year contracts expire. More land
is being planted with corn.

CRP acres comprise most of the habitat on an intensively farmed
landscape. Plowing them up will have immediate and tragic
consequences for farmland wildlife, especially pheasants, ducks,
and other ground-nesting birds.

Minnesota is poised to experience a decline in common wildlife
on a grand scale. Meeting the production demands of bioenergy, the
“green” solution to the nation’s energy woes, may well prove to be
the final solution for Minnesota’s farmland wildlife.

“This is a long-term strategic issue,” says Lindquist of coping
with land conversion. “How will we use lands in a changing
agricultural market? How will we continue to provide
recreation?”

Farmland conservation is an offshoot of commodity supply and
demand. The federal Conservation Reserve Program began as a tool to
stabilize farm markets, with conservation an added benefit. Now
market conditions have changed. Government mandates and subsidies
to encourage ethanol production, high prices for petroleum, and a
growing global marketplace have created a nearly insatiable demand
for corn.

This new reality of farming presents a stiff challenge for
conservation: How do you keep habitat on the ground when the
commodity market is booming? Lindquist believes that energy markets
could finance conservation, especially if a cellulosic process is
developed to create ethanol from grass. Traditional tools to
restore habitat – land acquisition by state or federal wildlife
agencies and long-term or permanent private land easements – will
still be used, though they may be less effective if land values
rise.

The demand for corn and other commodities isn’t likely to
diminish in the foreseeable future. The 2007 federal Energy Bill
calls for production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol annually.
China and India have been experiencing double digit annual economic
growth – and increasing their demand for foodstuffs, including
corn. Minnesota almost certainly will boost agricultural production
to help meet the demand. And that won’t be good for duck
production.

The DNR’s duck plan calls for establishing 2 million acres of
duck habitat over 50 years, which represents 10 percent of the
state’s farmland, says Lindquist. He thinks it will be difficult to
accomplish this goal if land has greater value for producing
crops.

“Can we invest the dollars more wisely?” he asks.

Lindquist points to the Working Lands Initiative, which targets
private lands near areas managed for wildlife. Landowners receive
government assistance to do habitat improvements on their property
while continuing to use the land for agriculture. For instance, on
a farm in Big Stone County, a water value was installed on a
drained wetland. When the landowner is growing corn, the valve is
opened to drain the wetland in the spring. During years when
soybeans, which are planted later, are grown, the valve is closed
to create a temporary wetland for migrating ducks. In other
instances, the Working Lands Initiative can be used to remove trees
from pastures, improving grazing as well as habitat for ducks and
geese.

Monies are also being used to square up Conservation Reserve
Enhancement Program easements that do not extend to the nearest
property line.

Lindquist suggests the DNR could cut back on public land
expenditures in order to spend more on private land conservation.
The agency may also find ways to enter the agricultural market.
Recently, the University of Minnesota, Morris partnered with the
DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to harvest hay from
state and federal wildlife lands to fuel its grass-fired power
plant. The hay was cut from areas wildlife crews hadn’t been able
to burn the previous spring. Lindquist says similar bioenergy
haying could be used to rejuvenate the grassland cover on CRP and
CREP lands.

About the only hope Minnesota has to maintain some semblance of
perennial cover on private farmland is if creating ethanol from
grass ever becomes an economic reality. Because of the favorable
economics of growing grass – just watch it grow – there is hope it
could become a viable option for farmers. The permanent cover of
grass presumably would have some wildlife benefits. Lindquist says
that at $50 per ton, grass is competitive with natural gas.

The ecological future of Minnesota’s agricultural region has
never appeared so grim. As more land is used to produce food and
energy, there simply won’t be much room for wildlife. But habitat
loss can’t be measured in just pheasants or ducks. It is also the
loss of water quality, soil retention, and other benefits perennial
cover provides.

Lindquist is aware Minnesota’s farmland wildlife species face an
uncertain future. But he is optimistic steps can be taken to help
wildlife habitat remain an economically viable component of the
agricultural landscape. The DNR is committing resources to
bioenergy issues in an effort to stay in the game as the land
conversion occurs.

“We have the potential to do right or do wrong with bioenergy,”
says Lindquist. “I am confident that we can move the state in the
direction we want it to go.”

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