The United States Department of Agriculture is celebrating 30 years of the Conservation Reserve Program known to most simply as CRP. The basics of the program, though there are many wrinkles and enhancements, landowners enroll acreage in a 10-year to 15-year CRP lease requiring that land remain out of production, not farmed or developed, during the lease term. The landowner is compensated by the US taxpayer at varying rates depending on area and type of land which can be from $35 to over $200 an acre.
The program has had some successes countering a mass production mentality. In 2007 at its height there were 36.7 million acres enrolled across the country. Today, congress has limited the amount of land permitted within the program to a total of 24.1 million acres at a cost of $1.6 billion annually. That’s the fewest amount of acres since 1988. With increases in commodity prices over time that track with a hungry and growing global population, the lease rates have had difficulty keeping economic pace.
One cannot deny that CRP acreage can be an asset for upland game and other wildlife.
But here’s the rub: Even at its maximum enrollment in 2007, the trajectory of all upland bird populations was downward. Resident game bird numbers have been documented declining for at least six decades and at the creation of CRP in 1985 through its peak, those declines have not been arrested.
When conservation organizations, politicians and government agencies place CRP on a pedestal, the height should be limited by an acknowledgment that the program alone cannot and will not be the savior of wildlife and wild places. How do we know this? 30 years of history overlaid by persistent declines in upland birds that show no correlation to the amount of acreage enrolled in CRP.
The authorization for the Conservation Reserve Program resides in the 959 pages of the Farm Bill which has become one of the most contentious pieces of legislation in the halls of congress. That’s not going to change. Lawmakers who want expanded subsidies for American farmers are equally countered by those who want the government out of the farming business. Holding out hope for CRP expansion to reign with constantly favorable political tailwinds on the current five-year renewal cycle of legislation seems folly.
According to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative’s annual State of the Birds report, 75% of resident game birds are of conservation concern. Six of those species are at risk of extinction.
This should be a wake-up call. Resident game birds need conservation solutions that rise above commodity competition. This is exactly why the National Wildlife Refuge system has been such a success for migratory birds. While celebrating 30 years of CRP, the best birthday wish we can grant is an honest conversation about the 60 years of documented bird declines that the program can’t fix on its own.