In the past three weeks I’ve made two hunting road trips through the heart of the great plains, from northern Oklahoma through Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota all the way to the North Dakota border. For anyone not familiar with this part of the country, the nations wheat-and-corn basket, it’s hard to comprehend just how industrialized much of this vast and lonely landscape truly is, or how fragile.

Take a drive up U.S. 183 from Oklahoma to South Dakota and and continue up U.S. 281 into North Dakota and you will see endless miles of large-scale agriculture that continues to feed, and increasingly fuel, an ever-hungrier world. You will also bear witness to some of the finest remaining bird hunting in the nation. Bobwhite quail, pheasants, lesser and greater prairie chickens, sharptails, waterfowl; if it has wings it can be found within a few miles on either side of this thin stretch of asphalt that perfectly embodies Woody Guthrie’s beautiful “ribbon of highway, endless skyway” poeticism.

One of these days I hope to load up the dogs and spend an entire season exploring this bird highway, chasing the fall and my dreams from north to south. But increasingly I fear I may not get the chance, and even if I do, the experience may prove to be nothing more than requiem. Our bird-hunting heartland is in trouble, big trouble.

Why? Because the Conservation Reserve Program is in trouble, big trouble. From this press release from Pheasants Forever:

_Congress is debating necessary reductions in federal spending to balance our budget. It’s important these cuts to be made with a clear view of today AND tomorrow’s ledger. Of chief concern to Pheasants Forever is the integrity of CRP, which has a 25-year history of growing rural economies, creating wildlife, and protecting our water. Despite this positive track record, strong forces are working to use our nation’s current economic state of belt-tightening to force-feed their own anti-conservation agendas. These anti-CRP voices have launched an all-out assault to neuter CRP.

Here are the facts about CRP:

The Economy of Hunting: CRP is the single biggest source of wildlife habitat across America’s prairies. These acres create pheasants, quail, ducks, deer, and turkeys hunted by millions of Americans who spend their hard-earned dollars in cafes, gas stations, and hotels throughout the fall. The hunting industry creates tens of thousands of jobs across America. In South Dakota alone, CRP is the foundation of a $250 million dollar annual pheasant hunting industry.

Wildlife: Pheasant numbers follow the path of CRP acres as closely as any species of wildlife. In these times of CRP losses, pheasant numbers have dropped by 50 percent or more across much of the pheasant range in just a few short years.

Water Quality: CRP reduces nitrogen and phosphorous run off into our waterways, and buffers pesticides and herbicides from entering our streams and rivers.

Flood Prevention: CRP acres hold water during times of spring melts and heavy rains.

Soil Erosion: Since 1986, CRP has stopped more than 8 billion tons of soils from eroding off the land._

There is simply no way to overstate or hyperbolize how important CRP is to gamebird and wildlife production in the plains states. In many areas it is – quite literally – the only habitat available for miles around. I’ve hunted CRP parcels that – excepting bar ditches – were the only patches of native grass for literally miles And when and if that CRP parcel goes into production, that’s it, game over, at least on a micro scale. And on a macro, nation-wide scale? Full-on decimation of wild gamebird populations in the plains states. It’s that important.

Here’s what Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s vice-president of government relations and one of the nation’s top experts on CRP, had to say about the current predicament of the program.

From his blog:

“I have worked in Washington, D.C. on conservation programs and CRP since its 1985 beginnings. I’ve never, ever, seen the program’s future so grim. There are proposals to slash CRP’s current 32 million-acre baseline in half… or worse. I don’t need to tell you what a loss of that magnitude would mean to pheasants, quail, flood prevention, water quality and hunting access. “DEVASTATING” is the word that rings in my mind.

_I recognize we do need to reduce federal spending, but we need to be wise about our conservation cuts. If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines of this battle for conservation in the past, it’s critical that you get in the game now. Your future and your children’s future of days spent in the field together with bird dogs and flushing roosters hangs in the balance. This is my personal plea; please, please contact your two U.S. Senators and one U.S. Representative about making CRP reauthorization a top Congressional priority today. If you get a response back, please drop me an email message with the feedback you receive at . Please don’t let CRP be this generation’s Soil Bank program of days gone by.”
Our collective future as hunters will be defined by the choices we make today. We can argue all we want about government spending, deficit-reduction, national debt and who’s responsible for what, but destroying one of the most successful and beneficial-to-hunting conservation programs in history, all under the guise of fiscal responsibility, is the kind of cosmic, non-partisan stupidity we need to avoid, not embrace. Call your elected representatives and voice your support for CRP. The tradition you save may be your own…