Saving Grassland A Matter Of Getting More Green

The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers, primarily in the Midwest, an annual subsidy to leave their most easily-eroded land in grass, instead of using it for crops or cattle. But last year's farm bill cut back on the acreage covered in the program and, starting this summer, roughly two million acres — mostly in Texas, Kansas, and Colorado — will be turned back into farmland. Megan Verlee reports from Colorado Public Radio.

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Speaking of the great outdoors, more than a million acres of federally-protected grasslands in the middle of the country could soon be removed from that protection and put to work, growing crops or feeding cattle. The land is part of the nation's biggest conservation program, but cutbacks in Washington might lead to some critical changes in the Western landscape.

Colorado Public Radio's Megan Verlee reports.

MEGAN VERLEE: This is a story about dirt - its potential and its risks. Farmer Tom Randolph knows both well. He grows dry land wheat in this arid corner of Colorado just next to the Oklahoma border.

Mr. TOM RANDOLPH (Farmer): Last year was a dry year and we had dirt in the air and it looked terrible around here.

VERLEE: Dirt in the air is a scary thing here, a place where the oldest folks still remember the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Last year was barely a shadow of that disaster, and for that Randolph credits the field of wild silvery grass in front of him.

The federal government pays him not to farm these acres, and that permanent cover protects this fragile soil from the wind.

Mr. RANDOLPH: It's not like it was when I was a young kid and the land used to lift up and they used to let us out of the school, you know, early because the buses couldn't see. And we haven't had to experience anything like that in a long time and I sure don't want to go back to it.

VERLEE: That possibility has been on a lot of minds in this part of the country lately, where millions of acres are set to expire out of the Conservation Reserve Program. The program was created in the 1980s to cut erosion and drive up commodity prices. Tens of thousands of farmers are paid around $40 an acre by the government to keep their most marginal land out of production.

But last summer Congress cut nearly two million acres from the program. Most of those parcels are in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma. When Randolph found out his land might be part of that, he faced some tough decisions.

Mr. RANDOLPH: We were going to have to take a look at what crop prices were, where all the inputs it would take to put it back into crops would be at the time. And I was in hopes that we would not have to break it out. You know, I'll even give up a little income to be able to leave it covered.

VERLEE: Even many farm officials would like to see the land conserved. Mike Lindenbiggler(ph) oversees CRP for the Federal Farm Service Agency. He says it's one of the nation's most successful conservation programs, and its environmental benefits go way beyond cutting down erosion.

Mr. MIKE LINDENBIGGLER (Federal Farm Service Agency): It's one of the largest programs to reduce greenhouse gases on private land that the federal government has.

VERLEE: That's because undisturbed soil contains a lot of carbon from decaying plants, carbon that starts making its way to the atmosphere every time a tractor tears up the dirt. Animals benefit from those unplowed fields too.

Mr. LINDENBIGGLER: It also has made significant improvement into wildlife populations for pheasant, other game species throughout the western U.S.

VERLEE: If their land is set to expire out of the program, farmers have a few options. They can till it for crops or graze it with cattle. Tilling all those acres for crops would release millions of tons of carbon, and cause more erosion. Keeping cattle on the land cuts down on that soil and carbon loss but doesn't bring in as much money as corn or wheat.

Cynthia Lehrer with the Colorado Department of Agriculture says farmers have to weigh the best environmental practices against their bottom line.

Ms. CYNTHIA LEHRER (Colorado Department of Agriculture): They can't just be good for the environment and so everybody's going to do them. It's going to be a net benefit that's good for the environment and good for the farmers so that they can stay in business.

VERLEE: Lehrer's talking in a hallway at a community college in eastern Colorado, where she's helped organize a workshop for farmers, introducing them to incentives to keep their land and grass. A lot of the ideas seem to involve making money off city folk interested in all that open space.

Ms. LEHRER: There's more opportunities for recreation, tourism, to have people pay to be able to hike on the land, bird watch, hunt, and some opportunities like that.

VERLEE: Another possibility holds even more economic promise: the idea that farmers could sell credits for the carbon they keep sequestered in their grassland to polluting companies looking to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

Rich Malinni(ph) helps farmers enroll for carbon credits. He tells the workshop audience here that the money-earning prospects for a cap-and-trade system look good.

Mr. RICH MALINNI: They're saying that if we can get some of these rules changed around - in getting agriculture and get this cap-and-trade put together and get anything, that carbon could be worth $15 a ton. In Europe right now, they're selling carbon for 20 - around $20 a ton.

VERLEE: Congress is currently debating just such a system. As for farmer Tom Randolph, though, he's not waiting for Washington. He enrolled his CRP land in a pilot carbon offset program started by the state of Colorado. Now instead of the government paying him to keep it wild, the local power company does. It's good PR for the company and it works for Randolph.

Mr. RANDOLPH: If it benefits myself as well as anybody else - sure, society in general - why not?

VERLEE: Colorado agriculture officials believes this buy local cap-and-trade program could keep carbon credit cash in local communities, benefiting both farmers and their grasslands.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Verlee.

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