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Niobrara Ponca Conservation Plan Protects Prairie from Corn Prices, Crop Insurance

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.


  1. interested party 2013.10.13

    There are several threatened and endangered species in the Niobrara system but darned if federal websites are not unavailable. Rabbi Lederman and his horde best watch their sixes come election time.

  2. Cranky Old Dude 2013.10.13

    Kinda makes ya wonder...if this was viable crop land then why wasn't somebody already farming it? I guess I am tempted to blame the ethanol craze for part of this but who knows what evil lurks in the dim recesses of Corn Land?

  3. Deb Geelsdottir 2013.10.13

    The loss of wetlands, prairie potholes, and other conservation easement acres is a very big issue in MN too. Dennis Anderson is an outdoors writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He's written some blistering columns about the decimation of wildlife habit In MN and the Dakotas. Pheasant season just began here this weekend. Anderson hunted with 3 dogs and 5 friends in western MN. The first 3 hours they did not see one single bird. The moose population in northern MN is dropping by a third annually.

    The destruction of habitat is not limited to only certain parts of the country. The need to preserve natural places isn't only in more populated states. SD needs to maintain that part of the state's economy, as well as agriculture.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.10.13

    Deb, if that destruction of habitat is happening all over the place, that's all the more reason for South Dakota and Nebraska to distinguish themselves as leaders in protecting what wetlands and native prairie we have left and providing sportsmen with outdoor recreation opportunities they won't find elsewhere.

  5. jerry 2013.10.13

    The moose die off in Minnesota and the deer die off continuing here are major concerns for us all. We are not seeing the numbers of healthy deer in western South Dakota that we once have. My friends are even telling me they have come upon dead antelope and that is very unusual. We are seeing much of our grassland being devoured by farming interests in areas that were not put under plow before to plant crops that have been manipulated to grow in drought areas. We are not only poisoning ourselves, we are now possibly poisoning our wildlife. We shall see how the hunt goes this fall in West River, but from what I can see along the roadways and what is being said in the rural areas, there is a lack of game, a big lack of it.

    This area in Nebraska should not be developed any more than ranch land in western South Dakota. The Thune bird and his sidekick NOem should do all they can to keep wild areas wild. If they want to regulate so much, they should try to regulate the possible sick tame pheasants released in the wild as they may contaminate the wild bunch, including grouse.

  6. Deb Geelsdottir 2013.10.13

    I lay the blame at the feet of the Big Ag Farm Policy. Monsanto, Cargill, General Mills, Smithfield Foods, and their pals own dozens of legislators on all levels. They've trained their legislators to focus exclusively on corporate greed. They have no interest in the welfare of any South Dakotans, except as they can serve a useful corporate purpose.

    Of course all of this is not news to the average American who pays more than passing interest in governance. The problem with the Niobrara Ponca Plan is not compatible with corporate greed.

    South Dakotans and millions of American citizens are the only antidote to corporate bribery of lawmakers.

    We are it folks.

  7. interested party 2013.10.13

    santa claus

  8. jerry 2013.10.15

    NOem and the Thune Bird know that they are poised to raise the ethanol requirements from 10% to 15% blend in gasoline. That will again increase corn production for this as well as food prices and dairy prices, big wins for their masters. Now you know why there is such a push to get this land. But, there is always a fly in the ointment and in this case, a Democrat from Vermont who is sounding the alarm about what current levels of ethanol do to our air and our small engines, who knew? Check this out

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