State Senator Dan Lederman got his friends Senator John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem to join him in his hyperbolic, government- and environment-loathing lie that the perfectly sensible Niobrara Confluence and Ponca Bluffs conservation area plan is a dangerous federal power grab that threatens land rights and local economic development.
It's not. Participation is entirely voluntary. Conservation areas improve adjoining land values. And the status quo policies that Lederman, Noem, and Thune consider sufficient for conservation are not sufficient to contend with higher crop prices and Noem's own pocket-lining push for more crop insurance, which are driving farmers to plow up more prairie and wetlands.
Harvest Public Media whips up this snappy map showing conversion of prairie and pasture to crop land by county. Note the concentration of converted acres in Nebraska along the Niobrara and the South Dakota border.
The U.S Department of Agriculture reports that in 2012, 54,877 acres of land in Nebraska with no history of growing crops was broken out for farming. That was the most in the country, but the same thing is happening across other Midwest states like South Dakota, Iowa and Kansas.
Traci Bruckner of the Center for Rural Affairs said some of it is marginal land – land that may have poor soil or be prone to erosion – and isn’t suitable for farming long-term. But Bruckner said federally subsidized crop insurance adds extra incentive for farmers to break out even poor farmland for short-term gain.
“It won’t be profitable for them to continue growing crops on that land, especially if grain prices go down,” Bruckner said. “However if you put marginal land into production and get a revenue guarantee on that land, people will put some of that land back into production” [Grant Gerlock, "Farmers Plowing up More and More of the Prairie," Harvest Public Media, 2013.10.07].
The Niobrara/Ponca conservation plan targets exactly those areas where market pressures and crop insurance are making it hard to keep wetlands and wildlife habitat out of production. And much to the contrary of the Lederman-Thune-Noem propaganda, protecting ecological diversity also protects economic diversity and growth:
“The farming community has long understood that diversity in agricultural operations is critical to economic productivity,” said Rick Nelson, coordinator for the Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), which funded the study. “Local policy makers also know that tourism activities and outdoor recreation are key components of a healthy local economy. It is less understood how this economic activity is threatened by land-use change and loss of habitat. This study helps to quantify how an investment of time and resources in strengthening the nonfarm rural economy may greatly assist local governing officials as they work to support agriculture in the community.” The study conservatively estimates that expenditures on hunting and wildlife viewing are estimated to be contributing close to 10,000 jobs, $760 million in labor income, and $450 million in output to the regional economy. In addition, operational spending by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Refuge System and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, including perennial habitat restoration, are supporting close to another 900 jobs, $40 million in labor income, and $50 million in output in the region ["Land Use Changing in Prairie Pothole Region," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.09.15].
Lederman, Thune, and Noem need to look beyond their ideological blinders and understand how ecology and economy work together. Promoting conservation in the Niobrara Confluence and Ponca Bluffs areas protects wildlife, recreation, and tourism from get-rich-quick urges and excessive federal crop insurance programs.