USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program:
A Tale of Missed Habitat Opportunity on Millions of Acres in Southeast
By Mark Jones
Supervising Wildlife Biologist
North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission
Most of you have probably heard of the program called “CRP” administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program, is a national program that began in 1985 and was designed to retire highly erodible cropland from commercial production, and protect soil and water resources in the process. Land owners are paid an annual rental rate and management cost share on these acres, and the acres retain all cropping history in case farmers wish to farm them again in the future when contracts expire.
Millions of acres of cropland were planted in grasses and trees across the nation under this program. A welcome incidental benefit of the program was increased populations of waterfowl, pheasants, other upland game birds, grassland songbirds, and other wildlife in the Midwest and West.
However, the early program was not designed specifically for wildlife. Changes to federal laws through the 1996 Farm Bill theoretically elevated wildlife to the same priority level as soil and water under CRP. This was a policy change that was difficult to make a reality on the landscape in many states. While there are some small exceptions, overall the program has been better for wildlife in the Midwest and West than in the South and East. Native grasses—and even certain exotic cover types—in dry regions further west have provided exceptional habitat, while CRP in the South has been dominated by fescue (an exotic) and loblolly pines planted at high density and not managed for good ground cover.
CRP is just one of many Farm Bill programs but very widespread on the North Carolina landscape. In 2010, we had 122,000 acres enrolled in CRP, most in loblolly and fescue. Approximately 16,000 acres expired in 2009, and 9,400 (including 841 acres of fescue and 7,396 acres of loblolly) were enrolled for a net loss of over 6,000 acres. The potential to encourage improved habitat during re-enrollment was enormous if we could have required/encouraged mid-contract management (thinning and fire) on the loblolly, and conversion to native grasses of the fescue. However, most acres were simply re-enrolled “as is” with no improvement.
The lack of adequate management on CRP has been primarily due to federal agricultural policy designed to place acreage enrollment goals ahead of benefits to soil, water, and wildlife. These policies will only change through coordinated efforts from wildlife constituent groups from around the state and country.
We have some CRP loblolly pines on their third contract with no management for wildlife for 20-25 years. These trees have provided little or no wildlife benefit for most of their life spans and certainly have not met all three CRP objectives (soil, water, and wildlife) as required by federal rules since 1996.
Think about that!
I want to make sure our readers understand the magnitude of CRP in terms of acres of potential habitat that we are losing a chance to improve each year. We have 12,851 acres of CRP set to expire in 2011, 10,815 acres in 2012, and peak at 15,493 acres in 2015. Each of these expirations is also an opportunity to re-enroll trees that are thinned and burned or convert fescue to native grasses rather than simply re-enrolling tracts with no changes.
If future CRP sign-ups proceed like those for recent decades and thousands of acres of pines and fescue are re-enrolled without management to improve the wildlife value of the tracts, we will lose the opportunity to improve habitat on millions of acres of lands throughout the Southeastern United States.
As conservation groups continue to focus on efforts to address declining species that need early successional habitats, perhaps more thought should be given to this issue.
A typical CRP pine stand in North Carolina, with no ground cover
for wildlife. (Photo by John Isenhour)