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Conservationists make push to preserve prairie pothole land with farm policy

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Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By Juliet Eilperin

The Washington Post

MCKENZIE, N.D. — Jerry Doan’s great-great grandfather came down from Canada to establish a 160-acre homestead here in 1882, when the Dakotas were a territory. The 10,000-acre Black Leg Ranch now hosts a hunting and guest-lodge operation, as well as 3,000 cattle during the summer months.

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But even as Doan and his family have devised ways to keep the prairie surrounding the original homestead intact, some of their neighbors are charting a different path, carving up their ranches for cropland.

One rancher broke up “every acre of his pasture,” Doan said. “He said, ‘I’m getting a lot of money. I’m getting some good corn yields here. Why don’t you do it?’ ”

While North Dakota’s oil bonanza has garnered national attention, its farming boom is transforming the state’s landscape just as dramatically. Nebraska and four other states in the Great Plains prairie pothole region — called that because of its thousands of shallow wetlands — lost 1.3 million acres of grasslands between 2006 and 2011, according to a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The region is being transformed “at a rate and scale not seen since the Dust Bowl,” said Eric Lindstrom, government affairs representative of Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands conservation group.

Ranchers and farmers are increasingly opting out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners not to develop parts of their property for 15 years. Its level of compensation — about $40 an acre — can’t compete with the $60 or $65 an acre owners can get for renting their land for crops. Prices for corn, soybeans and other crops have soared in recent years.

In the farm bill — whose extension is set to expire Sept. 30 — the Senate is trying to include provisions that would penalize farmers who convert native prairie to cropland or wetlands, or who farm on highly erodible land without a conservation plan. Between 1985 and 1996, the farm bill had provisions under which farmers who tilled highly-erodible lands without a conservation plan or drained wetlands to plant crops risked losing their federal crop insurance subsidy.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., opposed putting the restrictions back in during House consideration of the bill. In a statement, he said that “in the spirit of compromise” he accepted a narrower provision that would impose penalties on prairie conversion in portions of five states: Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.

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