>>Working Lands: Introduction
Between the backyard and the back and beyond are a billion acres of agricultural land crucial to the survival of many of our endangered species. The much-maligned farm bill offers a portfolio of conservation programs that are key to these species' future.
By Jerry Goodbody
America's billion acres of agricultural land are an often overlooked but immensely important piece of the country's conservation puzzle—a sort of middle ground between the larger (public lands) and the smaller (backyards). These croplands, pasturelands, and rangelands—what we call “working lands”—which make up nearly half of the country's landmass, are home to a high number of endangered species, including many birds. “In recent years there have been dramatic declines in many grassland species, even those we think of as common, such as bobolinks and both eastern and western meadowlarks,” says Tess Present, Audubon's acting director of science. “Good land-management practices on working lands are critical to restoring populations of these species. Many farmers and ranchers are already taking action to help them, but much more must be done. This is the great promise of the conservation programs offered through the farm bill and other private-land conservation initiatives.”
To this end, thousands of farmers, ranchers, and other landowners across the country are making the most of conservation incentive programs offered as part of the federal farm bill through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Farm Service Agency. It could be a Louisiana crop farmer who measures success by the number of black bears rambling through his bottomland forest, or a Montana rancher who builds fish ladders to benefit endangered bull trout.
Each year, estimates American Farmland Trust, 1.2 million acres of working lands are lost to development, and those pressures are only intensifying. “Our population is getting bigger, and habitat is disappearing,” says Randy Gray, national wildlife biologist for the NRCS. “The point is, if we want to maintain biodiversity in the United States, we have to be working on private land. Period.”
Although conservation has always been part of farm bills, the 1985 bill represented a significant conservation milestone in U.S. agricultural policy. At the time the farm economy was a wreck, and farm foreclosures and farmer suicides had become staples of the nightly news. Out of the ashes were born three provisions that profoundly changed wildlife management on agricultural land. Two of them, best known as Swampbuster and Sodbuster, penalized farmers who drained wetlands or turned prairie into cropland by taking away their subsidies. The third, the Conservation Reserve Program, paid farmers to plant permanent vegetative covers on highly erodible land. Today the CRP is a model for an array of incentive-based programs.
The most recent farm bill, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, raised the conservation bar to a new high. The amount earmarked for the programs—some $39 billion—nearly doubled the allocation in the previous bill. While all the programs benefit wildlife (some more directly than others), they have somewhat different goals as well as varying options and provisions. Most are set up to maintain enrolled acreage as working lands, though the Wetlands Reserve Program offers easements that retire the land from production. Most identify problems and then find solutions, although one, the Conservation Security Program, rewards farmers and landowners for beneficial conservation practices they have already established. Although it's true that some of the provisions—which are written nationally—might not be equally appropriate for each location, the programs, on balance, offer huge potential for conserving wildlife and habitat.
All the programs are competitive, and the number of applicants exceeds available space or funding. In South Dakota, for instance, there were 62 Grassland Reserve Program (GRP) applications in 2005, with a total value of nearly $23 million. Only seven were accepted, and they used up the state's entire $2 million GRP allocation for the year.
The NRCS also offers full professional support—including biologists, hydrologists, soil scientists, and more—to landowners, and helps them navigate the entire enrollment process: deciding which programs to apply for, writing restoration plans, even assisting with the actual applications. After individuals are accepted into programs, NRCS staffers help execute the plan, then provide support for the duration of the contract. Says Don Gohmert, the state conservationist for the NRCS in Louisiana, “We work with farmers every step of the way to help them meet their objectives, both environmentally and economically.”
Even if $39 billion for conservation is a farm bill record, it amounts to just 22 percent of total funding, which is one reason the bill draws criticism the way a back-porch light draws moths on summer nights. Roughly three-quarters of the bill's $180 billion budget (this total excludes the largest farm bill program: food stamps) goes to price supports, primarily for five main crops: cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice. There are environmental consequences, too, to conventionally farmed row crops like corn and soybeans, which can create massive amounts of soil erosion and toxic runoff that contaminates streams and rivers and threatens thousands of birds and other animals every year.
Still, even critics of the farm bill praise its conservation programs. Says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, who has consistently taken on price supports for commodities, “There's no question spending more money on conservation is a better deal for taxpayers than price supports for things we already have too much of. We would much rather see taxpayers' money going into helping farmers with how they farm as opposed to paying them to grow more of what we don't need.”
It's unclear what's ahead for the conservation programs, both for the rest of this bill and in the next bill, due in 2007. Funding, of course, is always uncertain, and tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will affect the federal budget. Even so, “there is an unprecedented level of landowner interest in the farm bill's conservation programs that is not being met at current funding levels,” says Betsy Loyless, Audubon's senior vice-president of policy. “We're committed to working with our agricultural and wildlife colleagues to maintain funding for and to protect the legacy created by 20 years of these programs.”
Oddly enough, farmers are both romanticized as heroic defenders of our natural heritage and vilified as the beneficiaries of pork-barrel legislation and corporate welfare. But for every saint or sinner, there are thousands of farmers who are working from dawn to dusk, all the while facing the vicissitudes of weather, rising fuel and fertilizer costs, and a shifting marketplace with ever-changing regulations and realities. It's important to remember, says Dan Limmer, an agricultural policy analyst for Audubon Dakota, that “the vast majority of farmers are conservation-aware. They are good people, hardworking people, and they want to do the right thing.”
In the following pages, you will meet four of these people. Although they're from different places and enrolled in different programs, they all share a concern for wildlife.
By Jane Braxton Little
Scott Stone reins in his horse on a grassy knoll, leans back in the saddle, and surveys his family ranch. Black Angus cattle dot the hillsides, which rise before him in waves of spring green to the twin peaks marking the western edge of California's Sacramento Valley. “It's a healing time in the hills,” Stone says quietly.
Aided by a winter of above-average rainfall, Stone views the grass-fattened cows munching through purple vetch and rose clover as payoff for the decade he has spent improving the 7,500 acres his father bought in 1976. But Stone's just as proud of the animals he can't see but knows are there: bears, bobcats, mountain lions, and an amazing range of birds, from grasshopper sparrows and roadrunners to loggerhead shrikes and bald and golden eagles.
Stone, 48, is committed to walking the tricky line between running a business and restoring wildlife habitat. “You have to give something back to the land. You can't just take and take and take. We're aiming for harmonic balance between productive agriculture and nature.”
His rugged build and slow, dimpled smile give Stone the good looks of a conventional cowboy, but he has the savvy to meet the economic challenges of ranching in the 21st century. The Yolo Land & Cattle Company markets its 650-head Angus herd as grass-fed beef: no hormones or animal byproducts. Stone also runs an agricultural real estate office, sells honey and beef jerky online (www.yololandandcattle.com), and hosts ranch tours and weddings in a classic redwood barn.
He is convinced he can improve his ranching operations by restoring his land. Five years ago, working with Audubon California, Stone seeded 30 acres with wild oats and blue wild rye to test the economic viability and forage potential of perennial native grasses. The trees and shrubs he has planted were paid for with funds from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, one of the farm bill's conservation programs. He was also recently approved for additional funding through the farm bill's Conservation Security Program, which focuses on farmland and ranchland that has stayed in production even after environmental concerns have been addressed.
Other conservation projects benefit wildlife directly. To maintain water quality, Stone has fenced cattle out of four ponds, instead using solar-powered pumps to run drinking water into troughs. He knew he was doing something right the morning he saw a muddy bank crowded with 14 western pond turtles, a species of concern to state and federal agencies. Still he says, “we're looking at a bigger picture than fencing and ponds on a little corner of a ranch. This is conservation on a watershed-wide basis.
“We want to leave this place better than we found it—to show you can have working landscapes that don't damage the ecosystem but actually improve it,” he says.
In April Stone placed 7,000 of his acres in conservation easements through the California Rangeland Trust to protect the ranch from development—this in a market where land, even sold in large lots, is worth $2,500 to $5,000 an acre.
Ranchers like Stone shatter the conventional stereotypes, says Vance Russell, director of Audubon California's land-owner stewardship program. “There is no better way to maintain and protect that land for conservation than to have the Stones manage it. They know it better than anyone. They are the best stewards.”
On this spring day Stone is herding cattle from the backcountry, where they have spent the winter. He and three others on horseback fan out across a hillside, leaving gossamer trails of pale silver in the knee-high rye. Around a knob dappled with California poppies and camas lilies, the land drops to a fenced pond bordered by century-old blue oaks. Stone pauses as a pair of Canada geese hustle their yellow goslings into a protective clump of cattails. A red-tailed hawk appears from nowhere, sketching circles in the sky.
By Jerry Goodbody
We're about halfway through a two-hour tour of Bruce Bonnice's 430-acre property on this warm day in mid-June. The air is still as we look out over the landscape, a pitched patchwork of sun-splashed meadows, cool hardwood forests, and small cultivated fields. In the distance the bow-backed ridges of northeastern Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains play out, one behind another, shimmering through a filmy haze.
Each time we round a bend or emerge through a break in the woods, we see another of Bonnice's conservation projects. It might be one of the seven wetland areas he's built on the property, each 18 inches deep—to maximize their habitat value—and each with an island or two to offer safe haven for nesting birds. (“Every island had a nest this year,” he says, “with geese or mallards or wood ducks.”) Next it's apt to be a food plot, planted in clover or corn—for wildlife, not livestock. It could be a new seeding of warm-season native grasses like big bluestem or little bluestem or switchgrass to provide cover for bobwhite quail, grasshopper sparrows, or other ground-nesting birds. Or maybe one of his two seven-acre deer-proof plots, enclosed by eight-foot woven-wire fences, where black cherry, maple, and aspen seedlings will get the chance to grow without being devoured by deer.
Actually, deer management is what prompted Bonnice to start his habitat work some 25 years ago, although, he says, he “kicked it into high gear about five years ago.” He is an avid deer hunter—deer stands are a regular feature of the landscape—and for Bonnice hunting is a big part of family life. “When you spend 5 hours 15 feet up on a 10-square-foot platform with your teenage son or daughter,” he says, “with only each other and nature to interact with, that's bonding.” But it goes beyond deer, too. “Habitat that's good for deer is good for other wildlife,” says Bonnice, who has seen an increase in all kinds of animals on his property—from muskrats, skunks, and an occasional bear or bobcat to herons, ospreys, and ducks—thanks to the new habitat he has created for them. One recent day he saw three pileated woodpeckers.
Although Bonnice is not a farmer—he sells lumber wholesale—much of his conservation work is funded through the farm bill; more specifically, through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, an offshoot of the Conservation Reserve Program whose federal funding is supplemented with money from various state agencies. His current CREP contract, which pays him an annual per-acre rental fee for his wildlife projects, runs for 15 years (the maximum length) and covers about 85 acres of the property, which is made up of three former dairy farms Bonnice co-owns with two cousins. In addition to federal and state agencies, Bonnice works with private conservation groups, including Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation, on conservation projects.
We stand atop a hill, gazing out at the valley below, as a low breeze kicks up, sending a light rustle through the nearby trees. Long lines of tree tubes, which protect the saplings, trail off down the slope, disappearing in the distance. Bonnice, whose soft-spoken manner belies his bumper crop of energy and enthusiasm, estimates that in the past two years he has planted 20,000 trees, including crabapples and a variety of oaks to provide food to animals, and spruces for wildlife cover. Although he's quick to point out that he didn't do all the planting himself, it's clearly required a staggering amount of his time. Chad Spencer, a Pennsylvania-based wildlife habitat specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who helped Bonnice plan the work covered in his CREP contract, is not at all surprised. “There are people who are doers and people who sit and watch things go by,” he says. “Bruce is definitely a doer.”
I ask Bonnice how many of his nonworking, nonsleeping hours he spends on wildlife work. He pauses. “Eighty percent,” he says, smiling. “I'll go out to do two hours of mowing. On my way I'll see three other fields that need to be mowed. I'll be home five hours later. My family has learned not to worry about me.” And there's always more to do, always another project. Bonnice, predictably, has big near-term plans, including, he says, six new wetlands areas.
By Mara Leveritt
A mallard cruising over the Arkansas River about 15 miles south of Little Rock might be inclined to treat the swath below as just another stretch of inhospitable farmland: an open, largely treeless, mostly waterless landscape. But on this flyover the duck catches the glint of a pond. It's a notable feature because, just a few months ago, it didn't exist.
As Gar Lile watches the duck splash down, he knows he's seeing not just a bird landing but history changing course. Over the millennia, as the Arkansas River wound its way through this area south of Little Rock, it created 100,000 to 150,000 acres of wildlife-rich wetlands. To local farmers, the land was valuable only for hunting. Until 1973, that is, when the soybean market topped out near $13 a bushel.
Suddenly, farmers were draining and clearing even the most challenging wetlands, bent on planting every acre they could. By the time, a few years later, the price of soybeans had begun to drop, the damage was done. And in recent years, with soybeans averaging about $5 a bushel, the land was again nearly as worthless to farmers as it now was to deer, mallards, northern bobwhites, and other wildlife.
Lile, 43, who runs a Little Rock real estate firm and owns more than a thousand acres here, found a way to reverse that tragedy. In late 2000 he began urging neighbors to form a partnership and enroll their property in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). By forming a partnership, Lile explained, they could combine their marginal cropland, sell a permanent easement on it to the government, have it returned to wetlands—and retain ownership.
For Lile, who grew up hunting and fishing, the idea of restoring marginal cropland to its “highest and best use” was irresistible. “The thought of starting at ground zero and building a piece of property into a utopian wildlife reserve is incredible,” he says. “For me the decision was easy.” For his neighbors it was anything but.
After about a year of work, says Lile, 11 landowners joined in the project, which totals 7,186 acres. When the group's WRP application was completed in 2003, the site became the largest tract of private farmland in the country slated to be restored to wetlands.
In 2004 Audubon Arkansas and Ducks Unlimited began the restoration, under contract to the USDA. The first step was a massive digging effort to restore water flow. Next the groups planted more than a million trees, including cottonwood, bald cypress, willow oak, and water oak.
By early 2005 the area, known as the Woodson Project, was coming alive, with 2,100 acres of shallow and permanent bodies of water—most are 5 to 10 acres, but one slough is more than 200— 250 acres of native grasses, and more than 3,500 acres of newly planted trees. As spring progressed, the scars from last year's big dig were fast being softened by green.
That's good for the ducks, as well as for the Wilson's snipes, American woodcocks, herons, egrets, and black-necked stilts that have already begun populating the site. And it's exciting for visitors like Ken Smith, executive director of Audubon Arkansas, who has already seen a lot of Mississippi kites here. “I can't help but think of the incredible forests and wetlands that once existed here,” says Smith. “At one time, I am sure, ivory-billed woodpeckers dug for grubs under the bark of the old bald cypress trees and willow oaks. The partnership with Gar Lile, his neighbors, and Audubon is the best and perhaps the only opportunity we will have to restore the Arkansas River bottomlands.”
Good news gets around, it seems. About two years ago 19 landowners approached Lile for advice about a similar project. Earlier this year, with his help, the group's WRP application for an 11,400-acre wetlands-restoration project on the other side of the Arkansas River was accepted.
By Dean Rebuffoni
Tony Thompson has been protecting prairie since before protecting prairie was cool. And he does it in southwestern Minnesota, where agriculture is king and where plowing prairies and draining wetlands to make way for crops has been a way of life as far back as anyone can remember.
“I want to have the smallest ecological footprint possible, but to some extent the nature of my job requires a large footprint,” says Thompson, 50, a fifth-generation farmer who combines his main business—growing corn and soybeans—with his family's long history of helping wildlife.
It shows. Amid the tilled fields of Willow Lake Farm, which has been in Thompson's family since 1876, are sloughs, ponds, and waterways filled with clear, clean water and edged by lush vegetative buffer strips of native plants. These strips capture runoff from the fields, keeping silt and pollutants out of the water.
The buffers, maintained in part with funds provided through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), are rich in wildlife, including foxes, coyotes, and raccoons. Numerous birds—bobolinks, for example, and killdeers, goldfinches, and eastern kingbirds—use the strips as well. During autumn migration a dozen or so kinds of waterfowl rest in the strips, including blue, snow, and Canada geese; mallards, gadwalls, pintails, redheads, canvasbacks, and wood ducks; and blue-winged and green-winged teal.
Each year Thompson welcomes hundreds of college students and researchers, who come to study his innovative efforts to earn a living from farming at a lower cost to the land. He also hosts an annual “agroecology summit.”
James Anthony Thompson grew up on Willow Lake Farm, near Windom, Minnesota, 150 miles southwest of Minneapolis. He earned a bachelor's degree in agronomy from Montana State University, where he also did graduate studies. He farms or otherwise manages about 3,500 acres in partnership with a neighbor, Arlen Klassen. That includes land they own or lease from others (Thompson's three brothers among them), several hundred acres of wetlands, and tracts of native prairie.
Besides benefiting wildlife, the prairie produces a valuable crop: more than 200 species of native prairie grasses and wildflowers—among them big and little bluestem, Indian grass, side-oats gramma, and switchgrass, as well as sunflowers, asters, gayfeathers, and coneflowers. Thompson harvests thousands of pounds of prairie seeds each year, then sells them to government agencies and conservation groups that restore or enhance prairie tracts. Says Thompson, “This is land that is being actively managed for other values—like native prairie and wildlife—not just its crop values.”
About 500 acres of the land he and Klassen manage are enrolled in the CRP, encompassing those buffer strips and large blocks of land, where Thompson plants native grasses. Although he and some of his neighbors have long maintained several miles of strips, the CRP payments allowed them to widen the strips from the minimum width of 33 feet to 120 feet. Thompson widened his strips even more, to 200 feet.
Thompson's green philosophy extends even to the fields where he grows his row crops. “The two most exciting things I've been working on are reducing tillage with ridge-till farming and figuring out how to have a good cover crop on corn and soybean land at different times,” he says. In such tilling, a low ridge of soil is created, and each year's new crop is planted directly into the same ridge where the previous crop grew so that the rest of the land is undisturbed. This limits the need to work the soil before planting, thus reducing runoff and erosion while leaving much of the residue from previous crops in place. As a result, there is plenty of cover for wildlife.
Says Steve Kallin, a wetlands specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has worked with Thompson on several wetland- and prairie-restoration projects, “Tony is a really unique individual. He bridges the gap between a strong conservation ethic and the practical side of running a productive corn and soybean farm.”