WOODLAND, CALIF. — Over the last two decades, the federal government has built the nation's largest conservation program for private lands by spending billions of dollars to encourage farmers to protect land that is prone to erosion and important to wildlife.
Now the Conservation Reserve Program is about to shrink by millions of acres as part of the Bush administration's plans for stimulating corn production for ethanol to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Federal agricultural officials recently suspended enrollment in the program for at least a year. They also have been considering releasing farmers and ranchers from existing contracts that protect land already in the program, although it is unlikely they will do that this year.
The enrollment suspension comes as many California landowners feel increasing pressure to leave the conservation program and convert their property to more lucrative crops or home building.
The $2-billion-per-year federal program pays owners not to cultivate land that is prone to erosion, marginal for farming or significant for wildlife habitat.
Since its inception in 1985, the voluntary program has protected 2 million acres of wetlands, planted 1.7 million acres of grass and trees along streams and other waterways, reduced soil erosion by 450 million tons per year and increased the duck population by millions through improved habitat.
About 37 million acres of private land are enrolled -- more than the total acreage of the national wildlife refuge system in the lower 48 states. But U.S. Department of Agriculture officials expect the program to decline by several million acres within the next few years as existing contracts expire.
Conservation groups say the administration's strategy is counterproductive. "Most of this land was enrolled because it is highly erodible or very environmentally sensitive," said Terry Riley, vice president of policy at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. "So why on Earth would we be encouraging people to get out of the program and put it into production, which encourages more runoff, fertilizer and pesticides?"
Moreover, conservationists argue that opening protected lands for corn production does not make sense because much of it is not suited for that crop. "What are we trying to accomplish here?" asked Jennifer Mock Schaeffer, farm bill coordinator for the Assn. of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
In its proposed alternative-fuel rules, the Environmental Protection Agency said in September that raising corn on conservation lands that are erosion-prone, steep, or near lakes and streams posed risks to water quality.
Federal officials in California say most of the 150,000 acres of the state's enrolled land is steep, unirrigated and unsuited for corn.
USDA officials acknowledge that not all land in the program will be appropriate for corn production -- and they say they will take steps to protect the most environmentally sensitive places.
"There is a very difficult balancing act that has to be played out over the next couple of years to adjust to this biofuels boom," said Keith Collins, USDA's chief economist. "If thought of as a seesaw, one seat would be historically tight crop markets, with ethanol driving tightness in corn.... On the other seat would be the environmental benefits of the [program], which are considerable."
Based on the contracts expiring in the next few years, agency officials project that about 11 million acres will leave the program by 2010 and potentially be available for crop production, development or other uses. However, they say some of that reduction would be offset when new general enrollments resume in either in 2008 or 2009.
The administration was hoping that plans for corn plantings would increase, and on Friday put the number at 90.5 million acres--the largest total since 1944.
Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns on Friday said he did not anticipate releasing owners from conservation contracts this year, but said he would not hesitate to make future adjustments to USDA programs.
"There will be another decision point next year [on conservation contracts] because of the increase in ethanol demand," said USDA senior economist Larry Salathe.
In February, many agribusiness groups, including beef, pork and poultry producers, called on the USDA to permit withdrawal of conservation lands without penalty.
On Friday, some organizations expressed disappointment in Johanns' decision and said it was premature because weather and market forces could cut into corn production. "There is land in the CRP that can be farmed in a sustainable way," said Randall Gordon, vice president of the National Grain and Feed Assn. "We believe producers should have the option to bring that land out of the program."