August 19, 2008

SAFE: New Conservation Reserve Program Practice to Benefit Soil, Water, and Wildlife

By Selvog, Jason C

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) received a boost at the end of January 2008 when then-acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner announced a new continuous CRP practice. Secretary Conner announced approval of State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) proposals covering 259,776 ac (105, 172 ha) in 18 states. "USDA is ushering in a new era in the history of the CRP by making it even more focused, results-oriented, and community based," Conner said in a press statement. SAFE projects will be available through the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) service centers as part of the ongoing continuous sign-up for the Conservation Reserve Program. Additional proposals have since been approved, bringing the nationwide authorization to 500,000 ac (202,429 ha) in 33 states.

The Minnesota-approved SAFE practice, also called the "Minnesota Back Forty," has been allocated 23, 100 ac (9,352 ha). The eligible area covers approximately two-thirds of the state and is specifically targeted at improving habitat for ring-necked pheasants and greater prairie chickens. Pheasants are an upland nesting bird preferring small blocks of undisturbed grassland nesting habitat. Pheasants are barometers of the environmental health of Minnesota's farmlands, as their populations ebb and flow with landowner participation in conservation programs.

In Minnesota, the focus is on grassland habitat. In addition to being the primary limiting factor for pheasants, grasslands have been identified as among the nation's most threatened ecosystems. This threat is evident in Minnesota, where less than 1%. of native prairie remains. A mixture of 15 species of native grasses and forbs will be the priority.

"The focus is on planting native grass, since grass and nesting cover is the primary limiting factor for pheasant success. Landowners, in some instances, also will have the opportunity to plant food plots or blocks of winter cover," says Matt Holland, senior field coordinator for Pheasants Forever.

The main idea, according to Greg Anderson of the Minnesota Farm Service Agency is "to enroll 10- to 40-ac [4- to 16-ha] blocks of eligible cropland to create that wildlife habitat cover." There are exceptions to the 10-ac minimum, if, for example, the land is next to existing cover like a cattail slough.

Through the new Minnesota SAFE practice, landowners enter into a 10- to 15-year contract and agree to establish grassland cover on the enrolled acres. In return, the landowner receives cost share for establishment, annual rental payments, and a one-time signing bonus. The SAFE practice is designed for small fields and irrigation corners and can help square up odd-shaped fields.

"First authorized in 1985, CRP has evolved to become a true soil, water, and wildlife conservation program.... CRP's wildlife legacy has been well documented for pheasants, waterfowl, and other species of wildlife," notes Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever's vice-president of governmental affairs. "This announcement is particularly important in light of greatly escalating land and crop prices and strong demand for additional commodity production. We are pleased to see both signing and practice incentive payments included to help make participation in the voluntary program more economically viable," he adds.

The vast majority of CRPs wildlife benefits have historically accrued to the competitive general CRF signups. While it remains true that many wildlife benefits will continue to be associated with a fully enrolled CRF and general signups, the SAFE concept will give landowners the ability to target wildlife conservation on America's farms. The resulting habitat will also benefit soil and water quality.

SAFE projects also have been approved in many other states. Each state has their unique program requirments for their respective state.

Jason C. Selvog is a farm bill biologist with Pheasants Forever Inc.

Copyright Soil and Water Conservation Society Jul/Aug 2008

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