USDA announces CRP general signup, the first since ’06

Des Moines, Iowa – During a time of tight federal budgets and
spiraling national debt, conservationists were pleasantly surprised
to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer a new
general signup for the Conservation Reserve Program sometime in
2010, the first time since 2006.

Furthermore, the USDA will add 300,000 acres to be distributed
to three different “continuous signup” CRP programs.

The announcement was made by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Feb.
27, at Pheasant Forever’s National Pheasant Fest in Des Moines,
Iowa.

Conservation volunteers and landowners will play a big role in
identifying the “most critical” acreage that will qualify for the
new general signup, said Pheasant Forever CEO Howard Vincent. PF
members and employees will do much of that volunteer work.

Vilsack and Vincent also signed a Memorandum of Understanding
that recognizes the importance of volunteer efforts in implementing
conservation programs such as CRP. The MOU between the USDA’s
Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, and PF
creates the framework for the three groups to work together in
partnership toward common goals, including Farm Bill conservation
programs. Vilsack said the MOU facilitates the flow of information
among the groups and provides a foundation for Pheasants Forever to
deliver conservation technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, and
landowners.

“The MOU will allow Pheasants Forever to facilitate expansion of
its current Farm Bill biologist program, which has proven an
effective method for assisting landowners in implementing
conservation practices on their property,” said Dave Nomsen, PF
vice president of government affairs.

PF, along with other state wildlife partners, employs 50 Farm
Bill biologists in about 10 states that have worked with 60,000
landowners on 1.3 million acres of land since 2003, according to
Bob St. Pierre, PF public relations specialist. The PF Farm Bill
biologists will begin contacting landowners this month to make them
aware of the new CRP general signup.

Enrollment will begin sometime later this year after he USDA
completes a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Vilsack
did not know exactly when the SEIS would be completed, but said
that work is already under way.

That 300,000 acres will be allocated through three CRP programs
known as CP-33, CP-37, and CP-38, beginning in March:

n Conservation Practice 33: Known as the “Upland Bird Habitat
Buffers” or “bobwhite buffers” practice: More than 219,000 of the
250,000 acres allocated in the program have been enrolled
nationwide. The newly announced 100,000 acres will be distributed
among Midwest and Southern states.

n Conservation Practice 37: This “Duck Nesting Habitat
Initiative” practice has 87,000 acres currently enrolled in the
Prairie Pothole Region states of Montana, North and South Dakota,
Minnesota, and Iowa. The newly announced 50,000 acres includes
25,000 acres for North Dakota and 15,000 acres for South
Dakota.

n Conservation Practice 38: Also known as the State Acres for
Wildlife Enhancement program (SAFE), this conservation practice
focuses on environmentally sensitive land, as well as species that
have suffered significant population declines and/or are considered
to be socially or economically valuable.

This is the newest CRP practice, but states like Iowa,
Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota already were
maxed out or were quickly approaching their acreage caps. An
additional 150,000 SAFE acres have been allocated, benefitting a
wide array of species.

Currently, more than 253,000 acres are enrolled in 34 states,
with a cap at 500,000 acres, increasing to 650,000.

Vilsack said the FSA will work with PF to identify the most
critical acreage in need of protection.

“We also want to improve the quality of the land enrolled”
during the new signup period, he said during his keynote address at
a National Pheasant Fest luncheon. “One goal is to target CRP
acreage that will give taxpayers more bang for their buck, and we
intend to start that process right here, right now today.”

Vilsack said sportsmen’s willingness to volunteer for habitat
work and to support conservation groups like PF go a long way
toward getting more out of the federal money that’s set aside for
programs like CRP.

“Pheasants Forever has a lot of expertise in doing this kind of
work. (Sportsmen) validate the importance of these programs. They
work with the landowners, ranchers, and farmers – they are the
conveyors of this information and can promote these programs,” he
said.

Nomsen said PF has its habitat teams ready to begin talking to
landowners who own some of the most critical acreage.

“The actions today are good news,” he said.

Vilsack said the CRP news ties in with other federal
conservation programs aimed at stimulating rural economies. He said
CRP enrollments also will tie in with water quality programs in the
Upper Mississippi River watershed.

Nomsen said the MOU – the first of its kind between Obama
administration and conservation groups – is a result of work that
PF has done with the adminstration dating back to working with
President Obama’s transition team.

“The MOU means quite a bit. For several years now Pheasants
Forever’s Farm Bill biologists have been helping FSA and NRCS with
staff and budget issues, and those kinds of partnerships can make a
difference,” Nomsen said.

And even as PF begins working to get the word of the CRP signup
out to landowners, Nomsen and the rest of the PF staff is already
looking ahead to this fall’s elections when he anticipates seeing a
number of new faces in the Senate and House of Representatives.

“The good thing is that ag policy tends to be nonpartisan, but
regardless of what happens this fall, we feel that it’s not too
early to begin working on the 2012 Farm Bill,” he said. “We have
our work cut out for us – there are going to be new representatives
in Washington D.C. this fall who won’t even know what the acronym
(CRP) even stands for.”

PF volunteers and employees won’t be working alone. Delta
Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited were aware that the MOU would be
signed between the USDA and PF at Pheasant Fest. Volunteers and
staff members from both groups also are going to make landowners
aware of the impending general signup period.

“This is welcome news for agricultural producers and hunters
alike,” said Delta Waterfowl Senior Vice President John Devney.
“CRP is a proven, time-tested voluntary program that provides
numerous benefits to our land and waters, including grass nesting
cover that each year produces hundreds of thousands of ducks for
duck hunters across the U.S.”

Ducks Unlimited’s Dr. Scott Stevens, the director of DU
conservation planning in the Great Plains office in Bismarck, N.D.,
said the next step is to see how the FSA will establish the
“scoring system” that will determine which lands “rise to the top”
for enrollment.

“The devil is in the details. We have to see what the
environmental index is and see where these acres (that become
enrolled) will be,” Stevens said. “Still, we’re happy to see the
announcement for the general signup. We’ll just have to see how the
scoring system is set up and whether we will see significant acres
come into the Dakotas where it is really needed.”

Stevens said the CRP program is slated to lose almost 400,000
acres in the Prairie Pothole Region alone this year. The number of
acres expiring from CRP jumps to 717,000 in 2011, and another 1.7
million in 2012.

“That’s big, and we haven’t had a chance to add acres back since
2006, so this general signup will help,” Stevens said.

Delta and DU credited PF in working with the Department of
Agriculture to secure the MOU.

“PF has been working over the past few years to hire Farm Bill
biologists to work with FSA and NRCS offices to work with the
landowners. It’s a good sign that USDA is interested in working
with wildlife organizations to get these acres on the ground. It’s
a positive thing, and it’s not exclusive to Pheasants Forever,”
said Stevens, adding that DU just hired two biologists in the
Prairie Pothole Region who will work with landowners in much the
same way as PF’s Farm Bill biologists.

Devney said another accomplishment of the USDA-PF MOU is that it
got the Obama administration to acknowledge that it’s important to
keep CRP enrollment at the goal of 32 million acres. That’s a
significant decrease from the previous cap of 39 million acres, but
Devney said it’s important to try to get as close to 32 million
acres enrolled as possible.

“The drop from 39 million to 32 million acres was a blow, but
the more pressing concern is how much below the 32 million are we
going to go without a general signup, so the announcement of the
opening of a general signup gives us the confidence that we can
maintain enrollment close to the 32-million-acre cap,” Devney
said.

“If you’re below the cap, you’re not meeting the program’s
intended purpose. With everything else that we’re facing in this
country, this is good news. CRP is one of the most cost-effective
programs out there. It’s a good investment for taxpayers,” he said,
when comparing CRP payments to crop subsidies and crop damage
payments that would be made to farmers if the same acreage was out
of CRP and in production.

Established in 1985, CRP pays farmers and ranchers to idle
environmentally sensitive lands and plant them to grass and other
cover types. The voluntary program currently has 31.1 million acres
enrolled nationwide, down nearly 7 million acres in the past three
years. In addition, the 2008 Farm Bill reduced the national CRP
allotment from 39.2 million to 32 million acres, and the Obama
administration has floated the idea of reducing the existing cap to
24 million.

Despite the announcement of a new general signup, Devney notes
that contracts on millions of CRP acres in the Prairie Pothole
Region, often called the nation’s duck factory, are slated to
expire during the next several years.

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