Washington — Outdoor News spoke by phone earlier this month with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He took a few minutes to answer questions related primarily to the Conservation Reserve Program, but also to conservation in general. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
Outdoor News: CRP’s been around for 30 years now. In your own estimation, what sorts of changes have you seen, what improvements have you seen, and, perhaps, what things need to be improved yet in terms of the program itself?
Vilsack: Well, obviously it’s been a very popular and successful program that has over the course of 30 years prevented 8 billion tons of soil from eroding, that has successfully sequestered 43 million tons of carbon, which is the equivalent of essentially taking 8 million cars off the roads, and has obviously provided habitat for wildlife that is directly linked to improved recreational opportunities, which is a terrific job creator and supporter of rural economies.
CRP, as is the case with all of our conservation efforts, has had a positive impact on soil health, on water quality, and habitat, which in turn has created economic opportunity in rural areas linked to jobs and investment. So it’s key that we continue to have a focused effort on CRP. We know that Congress has directed that the number of acres in the overall program be reduced under the Farm Bill, so that puts a premium on us using continuous programs like the SAFE (State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement) program, which is quite popular in a way that continues to advance the benefits we’ve seen from CRP.
That’s why … we’ll be announcing our state-by-state allocation of additional SAFE acres, roughly 352,000 acres divided over a variety of states.
Outdoor News: In the most recent Farm Bill, CRP acres are heading downward. Since 2007, we’ve gone downward approximately 12 million acres in terms of CRP general signup. How does that affect overall conservation acres? I’ve heard overall we’re sitting in a good spot right now, but that seems like an awful lot of (lost) acreage to recover from given the fairly significant losses.
Vilsack: Well, I think it’s important to point out that conservation includes a number of programs, including CRP, EQUIP, and CSP programs in particular, and if you look at what we’ve done cumulatively, in terms of all the conservation programs, what you’ll see is that there are now a record number of acres enrolled in conservation of one form or another, over 400 million acres committed to conservation.
We have over half a million landowners and producers engaged in these conservation activities, and now we have seen great interest in the regional conservation partnership program that I think is a complement to CRP, because it involves, as has been the case with CRP, it involves entities like Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, other environmental and conservation groups partnering with producers in looking at large-scale landscape, conservation efforts.
So I think if you just focus on the number of acres in CRP, I think you’ll lose focus on the overall commitment to conservation, which has increased. Certainly in the time that I’ve been secretary we’ve seen significant increases in the total number of acres committed. And we’re obviously going to continue to focus CRP on highly erodible areas. It complements everything else we’re doing. It fits nicely into a mosaic of all of the programs.
That’s why we’re announcing these additional SAFE acres. It’s why earlier this spring when I was at the Ducks Unlimited (national convention) we announced additional focused efforts on highly erodible areas and it’s why we’re announcing our CRP grasslands signup Sept. 1 of this year and why we’ll have a general signup in December of this year.
Outdoor News: Coming from a rural area myself, and you being from Iowa, we both know that buy-in is important from the people who take part in these programs. It’s also important for the general public to support conservation. What seems to be the challenge with buy-in these days, in terms of getting people to participate, getting people to support conservation?
Vilsack: Actually I’d say that the buy-in has been pretty robust, and I point to the very significant response we’ve gotten from the regional conservation partnership effort. We’ve seen hundreds of pre-applications … submitted for very large-scale projects, some smaller projects, but I don’t think there’s any decrease in interest. I think, in fact, there’s probably an increased interest in conservation, an increased interest in trying to figure out ways in which conservation can be enhanced or rewarded. …
Outdoor News: In Minnesota the Legislature this past year passed a “buffer” bill … requiring buffers along waterways, also along public ditches. People have asked me, is that something the federal government should be taking a lead on, as well? Is that something the federal government would look at in terms of water protection?
Vilsack: That’s a complicated question that you ask. Let me answer it this way. I can’t speak for other sister agencies in the federal government, specifically EPA, that might have a view on that question. Our focus at USDA is on rewarding conservation and on incenting conservation and on partnering with landowners and producers to encourage more conservation. Rather than focusing on a mandate or regulatory process, which is sort of outside of our mission, outside of our directive by Congress. We are the entity that basically says to producers, “We want you to be positively engaged in conservation and we know that it’s a partnership between your use of land that could generate profit and our desire for better, cleaner water and more habitat, etc.” It’s a partnership.
So, our focus has been and will continue to be on strengthening that partnership, and that’s why we initially experimented with the regional conservation partnership effort in the first term of the president’s administration, and why we encouraged and pressed Congress to give us the capacity to establish the regional conservation program as part of the Farm Bill because that institutionalizes that new tool that I think will expand conservation activities and efforts.
Each state can make its decision about if it needs to regulate or mandate or incent, but our job here at USDA is to focus on strengthening the partnership, which I think we’re doing with the SAFE acre program, with the CRP and the regional conservation partnership program, what we’re trying to with the general CSP and EQUIP efforts.