Governors Push Conservation On Private Lands
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
The $17.6 billion that voters in state and local elections have approved for land purchases since 1998 is a powerful index of citizens concern for the environment, but buying up open space wont accomplish enough on its own, a key group of governors said this month at a land policy summit hosted by the National Governors Association (NGA) in Washington, DC.
While land acquisitions and regulation have dominated recent conservation policy, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack believes that a "third and more efficient" path toward meeting basic environmental goals such as erosion reduction, wetlands restoration and improved water quality begins at the feet of the nation's farmers, ranchers and forest landowners.
"The things we do to make our natural resources more profitable can also lead to their destruction. . . . Iowa's environment depends on our improving practices on working lands," said Vilsack, the Democratic chair of NGA's natural resources committee who prompted organization of the one-day meeting on March 16.
Vilsack, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R), and Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) endorsed expanded federal and state support for landowners' voluntary efforts to protect the environment and preserve rural communities by stemming the flow of productive lands into the hands of residential and commercial developers.
Recently updated federal figures indicate that privately-owned working lands account for roughly 1.4 billion acres, or 73 percent, of the nation's 1.9 billion acres outside of Alaska. Residential and commercial development covers 98.3 million acres. Over 11 million were added in the five years leading up to 1997, the last year for which numbers are available.
Iowa has more of its land (95 percent) in private hands than any other state, Vilsack said.
"Every day valuable forest, crop and ranch land is increasingly threatened by sprawl. There is a sense of urgency to act now to preserve our rural heritage, our natural resources, and our quality of life," Glendening, who has championed "smart growth" policies as NGA's chairman, told about 200 representatives of conservation interests.
"The time and public support have never been better for a . . . comprehensive, visionary effort" to sustain private working lands, said Land Trust Alliance ( LTA ) president Jean Hocker, whose organization represents 1,200 local land trusts nationwide.
How To Fund A Costly Proposition?
The NGA meeting brought landowners together with environmental groups, land policy scholars and local, state and federal officials to discuss partnerships that would compensate farm, ranch and forest operators for the public benefits, or "conservation commodities," they produce on their lands alongside more traditional harvests.
But conference participants agreed that a meaningful commitment to working lands conservation would require more than incremental increases in public investment. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture currently spends about $3 billion per year on conservation, the governors said this is less than half the level of aid provided during the response to the Dust Bowl crisis that launched federal conservation programs 60 years ago.
USDA's Farmland Protection Program is one example of underfunding, they said. The FPP made $35 million in grants toward the purchase of conservation easements between 1996 and 1998, drawing an additional $230 million in state, local and tribal investments that has shielded 127,000 acres from development.
Since then, the program has received marginal appropriations and turned away more than half of the 1,000 farmers who asked to participate, according to the American Farmland Trust, a national conservation group.
Thousands of farmers similarly missed out on limited assistance for wetlands and wildlife habitat restoration and the reduction of fertilizer and pesticide use, according to a report released this month by Environmental Defense.
Complex rules and poor outreach also hamper participation in state and federal programs, the governors said.
Vilsack said that no spending figure has yet been targeted, but leading conservationists such as Craig Cox of the Iowa-based Soil and Water Conservation Society have estimated as much as $10 billion per year may be needed to realize genuine environmental benefits.
"I don't think that conservation can . . . save agriculture, but I think it can help. . . . We simply won't achieve what we could achieve without significant investment at the federal level and at the state level," Cox said.
LTA's Hocker praised President George W. Bush for including $900 million in his budget proposal for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which finances the acquisition and development of federal and state recreational lands, but said that greater support for private conservation efforts must become a priority.
Looking High ...
The call for working lands conservation comes at a time when federal agricultural outlays have reached controversial record highs and more states are facing the sort of revenue shortfalls that historically pinch environmental spending.
Congress must approve a new plan for long-term agricultural spending by the end of 2002. Farm state lawmakers on Capitol Hill are pushing for a greater federal commitment to agriculture amid scrutiny over the $32 billion spent on farm programs in FY2000. But not all of them are requesting new funds money for conservation.
Advocates say that conservation is the key to stabilizing farm incomes and realizing the greatest economic and environmental returns on investments in the land. In a March 1 letter, a coalition of environmental, conservation and recreational groups told U.S. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R) that "helping farmers, ranchers and foresters maintain clean water and air, productive farmland and open space, wildlife habitat and safer, fresher food ... can and should become the basis for renewing the public's ... support of agriculture.""What we hope for is a redesign of the program so the states have a very substantial involvement with delivering working lands conservation. Most of the funding is probably going to have to be federal," said Joel Hirschhorn, director of natural resource policy studies at NGA's Center for Best Practices.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Ia.) told conferees he was preparing legislation that may include a tiered system of contracted payments of as much as $50,000 per year to farmers who enroll their lands in targeted conservation programs that benefit wildlife and enhance the quality of the air, land and water.
But agriculture scholars say a number of factors the sheer number of agricultural pollution sources, the difficulty of measuring results, regional variations, and the whims of nature will complicate the design of new environmental subsidies.
The states' capabilities are also in question. The Florida Senate has siphoned $100 million away from the $3 billion Forever Florida program to fuel healthcare and education programs that many lawmakers consider a higher priority. And with an eye toward increases for healthcare, the Maryland House of Delegates trimmed $35 million away from the $109 million Glendening requested for mass transit and land preservation initiatives before sending the budget to the state Senate.
The governor's office says he plans to work actively with lawmakers to restore the allocations. "We just can't cut back on these programs and expect that we're going to be successful. So we're asking farmers to do more, we're asking the private sector to do more and we've got to lead by example," he said at the NGA meeting.
"We're going to experience some lean years after a number of fat years. The governors may have to own up to the fact that private conservation is not the silver bullet," said Deron Lovaas, who coordinates sprawl initiatives for the Sierra Club. Lovaas said his organization supports greater funding for voluntary, private conservation practices.
Keating, the top Republican on the NGA committee, said he would fight for conservation spending as lawmakers hash out Oklahoma's budget, which remains flush with oil and gas revenues even as neighbors in the South and Midwest are starting to struggle. But he echoed suggestions that Congress should bankroll the lion's share of funding increases for current programs and new proposals.