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OPINION: Take responsibility for destruction of pheasant habitat

Don Carr

The disappearance of pheasant habitat in South Dakota disturbs the editorial writers of The Daily Republic -- and it should -- but they're reluctant to place responsibility for rectifying the situation on the growers who cash in on high commodity prices by planting their crops fence-row to fence-row.

"Who are we to ask this powerful industry to reduce its revenue potential and overall strength?" The Daily Republic asked.

Who? Well, the answer is that "we" are the taxpayers who since 1995 have invested $1.2 billion in protecting wildlife habitat through the federal Conservation Reserve Program in South Dakota alone. When prices were low, farmers rushed into the program and welcomed the added income it provided them in return for agreeing not to plant on fragile or marginal land. One happy byproduct was the evolution of a robust pheasant-hunting industry that generates over $200 million a year in economic activity for the state. And everyone benefited as rivers and lakes got cleaner and flourishing vegetation on conservation land drew climate-warming carbon dioxide out of the air.

Now that crop prices are high, however, our investment is being ripped up and plowed under. There's no way that the Conservation Reserve Program can compete with today's record-setting commodity prices.

Misguided government policies are making South Dakota's environmental tragedy even worse. Over the past 15 years, federal subsidy programs have paid nearly $8 billion to the state's farmers. Crop insurance programs, in particular, have devastated wildlife habitat and the environment by eliminating risk for those who plow and sow on marginal land. The lavish subsidies encourage farmers to plant every acre they can, knowing that they will be guaranteed revenue whether they have a good yield or not.

Even those of us who just fill up with a tankful of corn ethanol blend so we can head out for a day of chasing roosters are minor and unwilling accomplices in causing habitat loss. That's because, as most economists point out, the corn ethanol mandate in the federal renewable fuels standard (along with rising protein consumption in Asia and India) is a main driver of today's sky-high prices for corn and soybeans.

The current incentives to devote more and more acreage to intensive, industrial-scale cultivation of fertilizer-hungry crops is also bound to have drastic effects on South Dakota's lakes, streams and ground water. For evidence, look at Iowa. As its growers there have planted corn in every nook and cranny, the state has experienced not only a big drop in its pheasant population but also an alarming decline in water quality.

Undoing the damage caused by fertilizers running off corn and soybean fields carries a steep price. Environmental Working Group's research has shown that the total capital cost of a water treatment plant to clean up or prevent toxic algae blooms fueled by agricultural pollution can be up to $12 million-$56 million for a town of 100,000 people. These costs also fall on the shoulders of taxpayers.

As The Daily Republic's editorial noted, it's a good thing that farmers are making money. The sad part is that they are being swept into a broader campaign against conservation by lobbyists for agribusiness and their friends in Congress.

Crop insurance subsidies used to carry a requirement -- called conservation compliance -- that in exchange for receiving generous federal support, farmers would implement common-sense conservation measures. No such requirement exists today. Before the latest farm bill debacle, in fact, both Congressional agriculture committees had voted to slash the Conservation Reserve Program by $7 billion. And in Pierre, another conservation tool -- easements that protect vulnerable land and habitat -- is also under attack.

Instead of continually slashing support for conservation, the country needs to protect the environment -- wildlife habitat, water and climate -- by rolling back the corn ethanol mandate and spending fewer tax dollars on the extravagantly subsidized crop insurance program. It's an approach that should appeal to conservatives who make up the bulk of South Dakota's electorate: less government involvement and less spending equals a cleaner environment.

Agriculture is South Dakota's biggest industry, but it shouldn't get a pass on pollution and destruction of habitat -- especially considering that growers enjoy a safety net that no other business in America does.

South Dakota native Don Carr is a senior adviser for the Washington, D.C., based Environmental Working Group.