Des Moines, Iowa – It seemed an appropriate place for such an
announcement. Last weekend, as the 2010 Pheasants Forever-sponsored
Pheasant Fest drew to a close in Iowa, Tom Vilsack, secretary of
the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced the USDA would
conduct a general Conservation Reserve Program signup later this
The news was welcome for many of the nation’s conservation
groups, ones that have watched as CRP “set-aside” acres steadily
have evaporated in past years.
Under the current CRP program as authorized by the 2008 federal
Farm Bill, 32 million acres are authorized for enrollment; just
three years ago, enrollment pushed to 36.7 million acres.
Currently, according to the USDA, program enrollment is 31.19
million acres, down about 2.5 million from a year ago.
A general CRP signup this fall would be the first since 2006,
according to Pheasants Forever. “It arrives in time to address the
4.4 million acres of CRP expiring on Sept. 30, 2010,” the group
says. “An additional 14.2 million acres of CRP are slated to expire
between 2011 and 2013.”
“Last week at a Pheasants Forever event in southern Minnesota,
Secretary Vilsack indicated his intent to keep CRP at, or nearly
fully enrolled at, the program’s authorized level of 32 million
acres,” said Dave Nomsen, PF’s and Quail Forever’s vice president
of government affairs, in a press statement. “Today the secretary
outlined just how he intends to accomplish that by utilizing both a
general signup and increased allocations for continuous CRP
practices targeted at benefitting pheasants, quail, and
Ducks Unlimited’s Scott McLeod, governmental affairs specialist
for agricultural and biofuels policy, said his organization was
pleased to hear about Vilsack’s commitment to retain 32 million
acres in the program – especially in light of concerns about
proposed federal budget-cutting measures that could affect not only
CRP, but also the Wetlands Reserve, the Grasslands Reserve, and the
Wildlife Habitat Incentives programs.
The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership expressed its
concern about losses to those programs last week.
“While we appreciate the administration’s desire to reduce
unnecessary federal spending, the fact remains that these programs
are crucial to our country’s ability to sustain private-lands fish
and wildlife habitat – habitat that forms the bedrock of outdoor
sporting traditions for millions of Americans,” Tom Franklin, TRCP
director of policy and government relations, said in a Feb. 24
Since CRP acreage peaked three years ago, about 6.5 million
acres have been lost, McLeod said. Another 4.5 million are set to
expire this fall, which would take program acres well below that
which is allowed.
“There’s lots coming out, but the only way to get it back (other
than general signup) is continuous signup (options), which is
great, but those are smaller acreages,” he said.
Details of the general CRP signup are yet to be determined, as
the USDA works through a supplemental environmental statement.
McLeod said it’s possible the signup period could begin during the
summer, and he expected if it occurs, it will be before the federal
government’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
PF’s public relations specialist Bob St. Pierre said the
organization’s “Farm Bill biologists” (stationed in about a dozen
states) would begin contacting landowners this month to make them
aware of the upcoming general CRP signup.
Minnesota currently has about 1.6 million acres enrolled in CRP,
according to Greg Anderson, agricultural program specialist of the
USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Minnesota. Due to expire in the state
in 2010: about 69,000 acres; in 2011, about 128,000 acres; and in
2012, about 293,000 acres.
Nomsen said expiring CRP contracts later this summer weren’t the
only threats to pheasants in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest.
“Considering the severity of this winter and the sizeable number
of acres set to expire from CRP this year, the secretary’s
announcement is very welcome news for wildlife and hunters,” he
At Pheasant Fest, Vilsack also announced acreage increases for
some of CRP’s “continuous signup” options. Total acreage could be
increased by 300,000.
CRP programs getting acreage bumps include the “State Acres for
Wildlife Enhancement;” SAFE will be awarded 150,000 more acres.
Currently, there are 75 SAFE projects in 22 states covering
500,000 acres, according to the Department of Agriculture. SAFE
(Conservation Practice 38) focuses on environmentally sensitive
land, and species that have “suffered significant population
declines and/or are considered to be socially or economically
valuable,” according to PF.
Minnesota has about 23,000 acres enrolled in SAFE, and could get
another 10,000, according to the FSA’s Anderson.
Another CRP practice that could see an upgrade is the Duck
Nesting Habitat Initiative (CP 37), which Vilsack said would be
eligible for another 50,000 acres, in addition to 100,000 acres
CP 37 currently has 87,000 acres enrolled in the Prairie Pothole
Region, parts of Montana and the Dakotas, as well as Minnesota and
Iowa. Minnesota’s current allocation is about 8,000 acres.
Besides ducks, the USDA says CP 37 also benefits other wildlife
species, filters runoff, recharges groundwater supplies, protects
drinking water, and reduces downstream flooding.
Another 100,000 acres will be allowed to be enrolled in the
Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds Initiative, CP 33, Vilsack said.
PF says 219,000 of the currently allocated 250,000 acres have been
enrolled. The latest announcement would boost allowed enrollment to
CP 33 was created to provide early successional grass buffers
along agricultural field borders.
“Increasing acreage caps to meet the demand for these critical
programs will help us do more for wildlife on the same number of
acres,” Vilsack said in a USDA press release.
At the event, PF and Vilsack signed a first-ever “Memorandum of
Understanding” between the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation
Service, the Farm Service Agency, and the nonprofit conservation
According to PF, “The memorandum facilitates the free flow of
information among the groups and provides a foundation for PF to
deliver conservation technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, and
Staff writer Dean Bortz contributed to this report.