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Bush administration scales back conservation program
Associated Press Last update: September 29, 2005
WASHINGTON -- Changes are in store for a conservation program that pays farmers to take fragile land out of production, the Bush administration said Wednesday.
An estimated 35 million acres of farmland are idled each year at a cost of nearly $2 billion through the Conservation Reserve Program, the Agriculture Department's biggest farm conservation effort.
The department on Wednesday announced that only farmers and ranchers who own the most environmentally sensitive land would get new 10- to 15-year contracts, said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. Other farmers and ranchers who have gotten such contracts in the past will be offered only contract extensions of two to five years.
"We'll offer re-enrollments for those contracts that provide the highest level of environmental benefits, and extensions for the vast majority of other contracts," Johanns said.
Contracts will expire on an estimated 26 million acres from 2007 through 2009. Officials expect many farmers and ranchers will drop out because they don't want short-term contracts.
Dropouts may remove 20 percent of the current acreage from the program, said Floyd Gaibler, deputy under secretary for farm and foreign agriculture services.
The move drew praise from a group of conservation and farm organizations.
Ferd Hoefner, spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, applauded the administration for deciding against automatic re-enrollments for everyone.
But he said the department should improve the environmental index it uses to evaluate land and commit to reserving 7 million acres for conservation buffers that improve water quality and other benefits.
The program encourages farmers to plant wild grasses and trees, wildlife habitat and buffers to reduce runoff into lakes and streams.
Since its creation in 1985, officials said, the program has helped to reduce erosion, improve air and water quality and boost populations of ducks, ring-necked pheasants, prairie chickens, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse and other wildlife.
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