Guest opinion submitted by Idaho Senator Mike Crapo
Conservation is happening all the time on both public and private lands. I like to remind people that when it comes to preservation of land, water and wildlife resources, the Farm Bill contains some of our most important environmental programs. Farmers and ranchers understand and appreciate preserving and improving the land for the beneficial use of future generations. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a useful tool for land preservation and, over the past 20 years, it has been utilized in most of Idahoâ??s 44 counties. . In June in Idaho, there were 5,559 active CRP contracts, involving 3,226 farms and 792,498 acres. This land has seen 110,000 acres of new grass planted, 4,500 acres of softwood trees planted, 133,383 acres maintained for wildlife habitat, and 6,933 acres preserved as riparian buffers. CRP has been credited with reducing soil erosion, improving water and air quality and enhancing wildlife habitat in Idaho and across some 35 million acres nationwide. It is the largest federal program for private land conservation in the nation. CRP is voluntary and pays rents and provides assistance to landowners, farmers and ranchers who put private highly-erodible, environmentally-sensitive agricultural land out of production for 10 to 15 years. Landowners must apply to the program and are selected based upon a rating system which determines the level of environmental sensitivity of their land. Last year, the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which oversees CRP, and the U.S. Geological Survey hosted a national conference to gather input on the program. In August 2004, the FSA announced plans for early re-enrollments and extensions for the 28 million CRP acres nationwide that are due to expire over the next five years-- 689,000 of which are in Idaho. It then conducted a four-month public comment period on CRP. The FSA is currently analyzing these comments on the subjects of re-enrollments and extensions and expects to announce policies and procedures later this year. In light of upcoming expirations and as Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, Conservation and Rural Revitalization, I held a hearing in July to explore how effectively CRP has functioned over the years and the long-term direction of the program. Conservation efforts are best evaluated over time and CRPâ??s twenty-year history should yield reliable, long-term data about environmental, economic and community costs and benefits. This data provides essential tools to determine benefits of conservation programs like CRP. At the hearing, the FSA indicated that it is working to quantify conservation benefits within the framework of scientific data. Krysta Harden, Chief Executive Officer of the National Association of Conservation Districts, testified that the current system which utilizes an environmental assessment to prioritize enrollments should continue to emphasize state and local priorities and resource needs. Itâ??s clear from the more than 5,000 public comments on CRP received last fall that there is significant interest in the continuation of this program. As the Administration works to make CRP policy and Congress rewrites the Farm Bill, public input is essential to ensuring that the agriculture community has assistance necessary to meet conservation goals. As this valuable program continues and as landowners actively pursue enrollment, public input will provide data to further monitor and assess the results of the program. CRP emphasizes vital multi-level public private partnerships in land preservation both for future economic benefit and overall environmental health. 450 million tons of erosion reduction, 1.9 million acres of wetland restoration and adjacent buffers, 48 million metric tons of carbon dioxide reduction and 170,000 miles of protected streams benefit everyone. Federal programs such as CRP that can successfully merge public and private efforts for the greater common good is a wise use of our federal dollars.