Just Add Water

Just Add Water

Acreage set-aside programs are losing ground.

I've been a fan of good buttermilk pancakes since I was old enough to sit up at the breakfast table, so I suppose it's no surprise that over the years, I've gotten pretty good at making my own. The recipe I use these days is out of an old Farm Journal cookbook, a genuine, from-scratch batter with a few embellishments of my own that makes a pancake you've got to pin down with a fork if you don't want it to float away.

Late last summer, we were organizing for a backpack trip in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, and I set my heart on having pancakes for one breakfast. I was fussing with egg substitutes and dried buttermilk, trying to hit on a combination I could use right out of a Ziploc bag, when my wife suggested one of the store-bought mixes. I wrinkled my nose."Well," she suggested with her usual maddening good sense, "Why don't you get a bag of it and try it here at home first?"

So I did. And as much as it pains me to admit it, the off-the-shelf mix is surprisingly good -- not quite as good as mine, of course, but more than passable. "Just add water," the bag says, and the result really is worth eating, especially when it's served with a little maple syrup and some huckleberries on the shore of a high-country lake.

I was perusing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report on the population status of North American waterfowl the other day, and Krusteaz pancakes came to mind. For nearly 25 years, the federal government has funded a cluster of programs that have established large areas of more-or-less permanent upland cover across the northern prairie.

The bulk of this cover has been established under the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), but other programs like the Grassland Reserve, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) have also made important contributions to habitat in pothole country. Together, this group of federal initiatives makes up the conservation title of what is commonly referred to as "the Farm Bill." In its current incarnation, "the Farm Bill" is actually The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008.

Over the past quarter century, programs authorized under the conservation title of the Farm Bill have made a major difference for most of our waterfowl. We don't call them prairie ducks for nothing -- they prefer to nest in grass, sometimes a mile or more from the nearest water. The larger the area of grass, the more likely they are to keep their eggs and ducklings safe from predators. If you're trying to raise ducks, the key ingredient is a lot of grass. After that, all you have to do is add water.

Last spring, Mother Nature added plenty of water on the northern prairies. May pond counts were up 45 percent from last year and more than 30 percent above the long-term average. The ducks responded. Total duck numbers are up 13 percent from 2008 and 25 percent above the long-term average.

We cannot do much to influence the amount of rain and snow that falls in the duck factory. The best we can do is establish a good habitat base and hope for moisture. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state wildlife agencies do what they can to protect and expand wetlands and associated upland cover, largely with funds provided by hunters through the sale of hunting licenses and duck stamps, but in the end, that revenue stream isn't up to the job of maintaining American ducks.

That's where the federal Farm Bill comes in. Since 1985, the conservation title of the Farm Bill has provided substantial funding for ground cover in farm country. In January 2008, the Dakotas and Montana had almost 5.8 million acres in CRP, ready to produce ducks just as soon as the potholes filled up again. That's why CRP and the other conservation-title programs are so critical to the future of waterfowl and waterfowling.

When the Farm Bill was being considered for reauthorization in 2007, the Bush administration threatened to veto it because of its high cost. The farm bill is a huge conglomeration of programs -- it supports the prices of farm commodities such as grain, peanuts, rice, cotton, sugar and dairy products; it funds food aid to other countries; it provides food stamps and other programs to feed hungry Americans; it subsidizes credit, loans and disaster insurance for farmers and other rural residents; it pays for agricultural research and extensions services; it promotes international trade of American farm products; and it provides for oversight of the trade in farm commodity futures. That's not to mention biofuels.

When the federal deficit is discussed, the Farm Bill is always mentioned as a way to lop about $60 billion out of the budget. It's important to point out, however, the conservation title represents only seven percent of total Farm Bill spending in fiscal year 2009. The benefits of this spending for soil conservation, air and water quality, wildlife and support for the rural community offer plenty of justification for continuing federal support.

It's a relief for most waterfowl specialists to see the 2010 budget proposal for the conservation title is about the same as last year's -- slightly less for CRP with a target of 32 million acres, slightly more for the "working land programs," including the wetland and grassland reserves, EQIP and WHIP. At least these critical conservation programs have survived for another year.

However, the reach of these programs will probably be reduced perceptibly. Between 2006 and 2008, the price of corn tripled, and soybeans rose from $6 a bushel to almost $14. The run-up in price prompted many farmers to plow as much ground as they could.

Many operators who came to the end of federal conservation contracts decided not to renew, and some got out of their contracts early. Land prices went up, and the rental prices the government was offering for conservation contracts weren't nearly as inviting as they had been during the previous decade.

These days, the market prices for corn and beans have dropped significantly. I wouldn't bank on what the futures markets will do in the next week, but I think it's safe to assume prices for corn, soybeans and wheat aren't likely to collapse anytime soon. That will almost certainly mean less interest in federal conservation programs among landholders.

The only effective way to change that situation would be to raise the payments the government offers, which means the USDA's dollars probably won't go as far as they did 10 years ago.

At the same time, genetically modified crops, especially soybeans, are capable of surviving farther north and west than traditional varieties could. Landholders who once thought of themselves as ranchers now have the option of plowing their pr

airie pastures and raising crops, which yields more money per acre, but has catastrophic effects on nesting waterfowl.

I suspect it is the beginning of a trend that will haunt waterfowl managers and other conservationists over the next generation. A growing American population, a growing international demand for American farm products and growing pressure on the federal budget will make conservation on the northern prairies more expensive at the same time federal support for conservation becomes harder to defend.

Waterfowl hunters will have to dig in to protect the conservation title of future farm bills. The money spent on these programs has minimal impact on the budget, but it means the world to wildlife.

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