MARSHALL - With contracts for more than 820,000 acres of Conservation Reserve Program land set to expire during the next five years, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said recently organizations like the DNR and Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources are exploring ways to preserve the future of these sensitive landscapes.
The DNR says some 300,000 CRP contracts will expire this year alone, and the loss of protected grasslands like this stands to have a negative impact on wildlife like pheasants, prairie chickens and grassland songbirds.
"We are facing some challenges, and grassland areas in Minnesota is one of them," Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources Executive Director John Jaschke said. "If you look at the CRP program, programs like EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), those are the biggest things that can happen in this country as far as grasslands. Our first objective in Minnesota is to make sure we maximize federal conservation dollars, many of which come through the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) through the farm bill."
"Grasslands are critical," Landwehr said. "Critical for pheasants, critical for ducks, critical for water quality and flood water retentions. We've had CRP since 1985, and we have in Minnesota the Legacy Amendment funds and the ability to help shape the future in ways other states can't."
So how can this be done?
Landwehr said state organizations need to work collaboratively and proactively with landowners to address the situation. Some steps have already been taken with local landowners to encourage them to re-enroll land or entice them to enroll into another program. He said the DNR might also look into what can be done with buffers to address water quality and provide critical habitat.
"We need to recognize lands as working lands and not just lands behind the fence," Landwehr said.
Part of the broad plan to deal with funding revolves around how agencies will manage existing funds.
"We will not necessarily reprogram them, but re-prioritize them," said Dave White, Chief of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. "We're in the process of working with local groups to help them set priorities; if they decide to elevate grasslands they will get more points and more likely to get funding. We also have certain offerings that are there in the conservation stewardship program. We'll have a separate land use category for pasture land on prime agriculture land, but the producer can keep it in pasture, giving it equal weight and payments as if it were cropland. We'll have these things in the arsenal and give them higher priority if the producer is interested."
White said some lands could be used for more than one purpose to maximize their efficiency.
"Using these lands for more than one function is one of the ways we can be more efficient," he said. "We have some flexibility in our programs. The time duration of these programs is another variable; if we're paying in some cases for temporary benefits we can use some of our state funds to leverage federal dollars to make these more long-term initiatives."
Minnesota currently has about 1.5 million acres of private grasslands enrolled in the federal CRP program.