Guest Commentary: Betrayed by Our Conservation Partners

October 31, 2008 07:00 PM
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and other environmental groups who successfully sued to
prevent the release of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land for emergency haying and grazing have jeopardized a beneficial partnership.

CRP would never have existed if environmental groups and farmers had not tried to understand each other and agreed to work together. I know that's true because I helped build the  ag/environmental partnership that led to CRP becoming part of the farm bill in 1985, and I've been involved with the partnership ever since.

Before that, relations between the farm and environmental communities were not always smooth. Now, actions like the CRP lawsuit, in which a special-interest group unilaterally interrupts something good for agriculture, will reinsert mistrust in the relationship and move us backward.

Not only was the environmentalists' lawsuit ill-conceived, it also was poorly timed. I and many other farmers had already installed fencing around the CRP acres we intended to graze. That's just money thrown away—on top of the additional cost of forage for our animals.

Sadly, the lawsuit that prevented haying and grazing of CRP also may have detrimental effects for the wildlife the environmental groups think they are protecting.

Haying helps habitat. From a wildlife perspective, the best thing that could happen to many CRP grasslands would be occasional haying or grazing. Ideally, native grasses—which are planted in many CRP fields—should be burned occasionally for their own good. That is nature's way of revitalizing prairies, keeping native grass stands vigorous and free of invasive species. But burning is impractical, as well as expensive. The next best way to revitalize stands is haying or grazing, which creates better feed and cover for wildlife in the years ahead.
Our environmental partners have shown they fail to understand this. Nor do they understand that farmers must deal with all natural resources—air, water, weeds, plants, animals and biodiversity.

Perhaps most significant, the wildlife and environmental communities don't understand that farmers and ranchers have to make a living. Many needed this one-time supplement to the livestock feeding program because of exceptionally high feed prices and a very dry West.
This intervention is not likely to put anyone out of business, but it could be detrimental to wildlife. With commodity prices finally above the break-even level, actions like this could be the indicator farmers need to move out of the CRP program, causing wildlife to lose valuable habitat.

Farmers and ranchers who were counting on forage harvested from some—and only some—of their CRP acres feel betrayed. Working with agriculture to utilize these CRP acres intermittently for the long-term benefit of farmers, wildlife and all other resources would have served both farmers and wildlife much better.

Who owns the land? NWF has revealed itself to be misguided, self-serving and ignorant, forgetting that CRP acres, in the final analysis, belong to farmers. It and other environmental "partners” have demonstrated a total lack of understanding of the ecosystem and what farmers, ranchers and forestland owners and operators deal with on a daily basis.

Yes, the wildlife belongs to everyone, but they live under my roof. They look to me for feed and cover, not to NWF. It is my hay they share with my livestock in the winter when snow covers their normal range areas. It is my grain in upland bird feeders that helps them through rough winters like the one we experienced last year. The ponds and riparian areas are ones that I developed for waterfowl to use and share with other wildlife.

I have spent more than 35 years promoting conservation programs, and it saddens me to see one as successful as CRP hijacked by a special-interest organization. It grieves me to say it, but I urge all farmers to consider not re-enrolling their CRP acreage when it expires and to not enroll any more acres in the program.

Our so-called partners, such as NWF, have shown they are not to be trusted. They have demonstrated they couldn't care less about farmers and their survival.

Another partner, USDA, also has failed us by not anticipating potential challenges to the emergency haying and grazing announcement and by not reacting quickly and decisively to counter the injunction that resulted. Farmers and ranchers now wonder which clientele the agency exists to serve—farmers or wildlife.

America's farmers, ranchers and private forestland owners will continue to be generous caretakers of the land that has been entrusted to us for a short period of time. We will continue to share our bounty with the 70% of our nation's wildlife that makes its home on America's private lands. We were caring for wildlife long before these self-anointed saviors of wildlife, and we will be there tomorrow, with or without CRP.

I don't do business with people who don't know or don't care about the public benefits my farm brings to
everyone and everything. From now on, when it comes to CRP and NWF, count me out.

Read Smith, a farmer from St. John, Wash., has been involved with many conservation activities on the local, state and national levels throughout his farming career.

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