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Land Freed Up for Emergency Grazing

July 12, 2002|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department released millions of acres across 18 states Thursday for emergency haying and grazing in the drought-baked West.

Farmers and ranchers face a shortage of forage for livestock in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains because of a drought that dates back several years. The newly opened land, in some counties, is the only pasture that is still suitable for grazing or haying.

Members of Congress have been pressing the administration for months to help livestock producers in states such as Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota and Colorado. Democrats and some Republicans have sought direct aid, as much as $4 billion, saying only rainfall or cash can save ranchers who have been forced to sell off their herds.

Instead, the administration has been opening lands held in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to put private land off-limits to grazing or other farming. Before Thursday, the decision to open the CRP land to haying and grazing had been made on a county-by-county basis.

Thursday's action was sweeping, with Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman announcing that she is opening all the CRP land in 18 states, including non-drought counties, for feeding livestock. It adds up to millions of acres; South Dakota alone has 1.5 million acres in the conservation program.

"This approval provides immediate relief," Veneman said.

The states are Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming.

Democratic lawmakers, particularly senators from Plains states, welcomed the measure but still criticized the administration, saying it was slow to respond to the drought crisis.

"This is going to help. This is going to make a big difference," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). "It should have happened last week."

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