Conservation Reserve Program – Cost Versus Value

Let’s Understand The Facts Before Gutting Program
By John Devney

duck conservation
Conservation Reserve Program - Cost Versus Value
Delta Waterfowl
Delta Waterfowl

Bismarck, ND –-( The U.S. fiscal crisis has put all government expenditures under the microscope or on the chopping block.

Politicians of every persuasion are talking about ways to remedy our burgeoning federal deficit.

Super committees have been created and have died. And despite the rhetoric from pundits and economic experts, there is no clear pathway forward to address our chronic problem of too much expense and too little revenue in our federal government.

For the record, I am a fiscal conservative who is wary of burgeoning spending. I, too, am concerned about the litany of reports of governmental inefficiency or out-right waste.

But a recent indictment of the Conservation Reserve Program from policymakers, duck hunters and other sportsmen and women indicate an information vacuum of epic proportions. Boiled down, the perception is one of program costs versus program benefits.

CRP is continually the focus of policymaker’s budget thrashing. It is, after all, the 900-pound gorilla of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation programming. It impacts more acreage, is costly and thusly gets more scrutiny than any other conservation action. CRP is also in the crosshairs of some interests groups because they believe eliminating CRP would increase crop acreage, increase commodity inventory and drive commodity prices down.

Looking at any expenditure independent of its value proposition is a dangerous game. Taking shots at CRP’s price tag (roughly $2 billion annually) while not considering the program’s broad conservation, environmental and societal benefits is weak policy analysis. It is superficial hacking with no understanding of the implications.

So while the 2.5 million ducks produced annually on CRP lands (and I think this estimate is grossly low for about 2.5 million reasons), bumper crops of ring-neck pheasants and abundant bobolinks and meadowlarks certainly doesn’t justify the price tag, consider the following stats cited by a recent article in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune:

  • CRP lands retained 1.86 billion pounds of nitrogen
  • CRP lands retained 420 million pounds of phosphorous
  • CRP lands secured 1.8 billion tons of top soil
  • CRP reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 200 million tons in the last four years

Furthermore, those figures don’t quantify the value CRP has in terms of cleaning up our water supply, mitigating flooding (which costs untold billions annually), and providing access to quality hunting lands.

I know I can’t associate the value of reductions of nitrogen or phosphorous pollution or what the public value of 1.8 billion tons of top soil are, but I do know the federal government was pondering a cap and trade program that would have had untold costs to reduce carbon emissions when CRP is at least partially carrying the load right now with so many other benefits and at likely a much lower cost. Here we have the societal, or taxpayer benefits, of CRP.

A study by the University of Tennessee’s Agriculture Policy Analysis Center in 2006 deduced that eliminating CRP would cost the American taxpayer $33 billion over a ten-year period. Why? Because agriculture support on those acres would cost taxpayers far more on a per acre basis than CRP rental rates. It’s true that commodity prices are changing and agricultural support programs are different, but have they changed to the degree that it would erase a $33 billion deficit I find it hard to believe it has changed that much. So the long-term consequences of eliminating or even cutting CRP may well represent an increase in government spending—not exactly the outcome budget hawks in D.C. (or the American public) is after.

And let’s not forget America’s farmers and ranchers—they own the land upon which our ducks and other critters are raised. CRP has been, by any measure, the most significant partnership between agriculture and conservation. Its sheer scale of impact dwarfs any other conservation action that has ever graced North America.

Why? Because it worked within a farmer’s operation, provided a new product on marginal land, provided a hedge against the highly volatile commodity markets and provided insulation against the vagaries of weather. Many farmers are not re-enrolling their CRP lands. That is their prerogative. But with recent reductions in national CRP acreage caps, farmers willing to enroll in the program are being turned away. Yes, despite high commodity prices, surging cash rent, etc., farmers still want CRP because they want to contribute to conservation and environmental outcomes on their land.

I know our country needs to get its fiscal house in order. There is no denying the criticalness of the task. No aspect of the federal budget should be off limits for debate, dialog and evaluation for spending reductions. CRP may need to be amongst the good programming that needs trimming. If so, so be it.

But it is our role as hunters and anglers to ensure policymakers and the public at large know the facts. Let’s make decisions with the best information at hand. Let’s look at value. Let’s look at benefits. Let’s look at outcomes. I have a hunch CRP will come out better than a goodly chunk of government spending.

Rant over.

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