Conservation Update: CRP Lands Come to Rescue of Drought-Stricken Farmers and Ranchers; Solar Will Be Wildlife-Friendly

The headline above should be read out loud to all those congressmen and agricultural interests who oppose the Conservation Reserve Program.

Here's why: Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture released millions of acres of CRP lands to grazing and haying in the nation's drought-stricken heartland, coming to the rescue of farm and ranch operations that are facing disaster. But that's exactly what the law creating CRP says should happen in these circumstances.

Conservation programs like CRP aren't just about helping critters and sportsmen. They are an asset to farmers and ranchers as well.

Yes, landowners receive payments from federal taxpayers not to plow these acres, instead allowing them to grow natural grasses primarily to benefit wildlife. And, yes, that effort is generally recognized as the nation's most effective wildlife conservation program ever. It's provided as many as 32 million acres of upland cover for birds and mammals, and it's been a big help in cleaning up the water supply for humans as well as critters.

But CRP was originally also conceived as a way to protect the basic currency in farming success: topsoil. It did this by identifying "highly erodible acres" that should not be plowed. That effort received growing support from sportsmen and other green advocates who saw the advantage of fish, wildlife and ecosystems.

Yet the law always made provisions to use this huge bank of untouched land as saving grace when weather turned against farmers. They can be opened when there is a "40 percent or greater loss of normal precipitation for the 4 most recent months plus the days in the current month before the date of request." Or, during times when the rain won't stop, they can be opened if there is a "140 percent or greater increase in normal precipitation during the 4 most recent consecutive months plus the days in the current month before the date of request.

Even then, safeguards for wildlife are supposed to be followed. Permission to hay and graze typically is withheld until the end of nesting season, and land within 120 feet of a stream or other permanent water body cannot be included in the emergency opening.

And the farmers must pay a price: Usually they forfeit 25 percent of their CRP payments. This year that amount has been set at 10 percent.

Not a bad deal when the alternative might be watching livestock starve.

Is this good for wildlife? In the short term, no. But long-term, it gives sportsmen more ammunition in their fight to protect conservation programs because now they can ask farmers and ranchers this question: Where would you have been in 2012 without CRP?
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Solar Plans Revised to Protect Wildlife**

This is why sportsmen should never think fighting conservation battles--even against great odds--is a waste of time:

The plan for utility-scale development on solar energy across Western states released this week by the Department of Interior contains many of the revisions to protect fish, wildlife and recreation urged by sportsmen last December.

"These changes--which include addressing habitat fragmentation and connectivity issues, refining solar zone acres and ultimately excluding valuable fish and wildlife habitat from what was proposed in the original draft--should help facilitate domestic renewable energy development and minimize conflicts over public lands management, all while ensuring the responsible cultivation of our shared natural resources," Ed Arnett, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Center for Responsible Energy Development said in a press release the group released on the news.

The coalition was specific in its praise for the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that more often is a target of its criticism.

Kate Zimmerman of the National Wildlife Federation said, "This is a huge step forward for the Bureau of Land Management, which has tended to address energy development on a project-by-project basis in response to the wants of individual companies rather than the values of the American public or the needs of fish and wildlife. By designating solar energy zones and driving development to those zones, BLM is charting a future for America's public lands that includes both plenty of renewable energy and abundant wildlife."

Trout Unlimited Brad Powell added, "The BLM engaged the public effectively and developed a well-thought-out decision. To capitalize on this success it is imperative that this new policy include direction for successful implementation. It must provide greater certainty for the energy industry as well as for sportsmen, identifying places that will not be developed in the near future--as well as areas that will require mitigation measures to reduce impacts to fish and wildlife, hunting and angling, and our valuable recreation-based economy."

This is all worth repeating because it shows federal agencies will listen to sportsmen's voices--even in an era when many in Congress are urging less accountability from industry, fewer safeguards for fish, wildlife and public lands--and less cooperation with the majority owners of that public property, average citizens like sportsmen.

So the next time elected officials try to tell you "adjustments for the environment are too expensive," show them this news. And keep writing those letters and emails.