Neil Shook was relaxing at home in Woodworth, N.D., on a Saturday afternoon just over a week ago.
"My wife was outside and she yelled at me to come outside and take a look at this," he recalls.
A massive brown cloud covered the horizon to the west. It was a dust storm — although Shook, who's a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, doesn't like to call it dust. "I like to refer to it as soil, because that's basically what it is," he says. "We saw this huge soil cloud moving from west to east across the landscape."
That soil cloud is a result of farming practices — and of government policies.
Soil has been blowing away from the Great Plains ever since farmers first plowed up the prairie. It reached crisis levels during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when windblown soil turned day into night.
In recent years, dust storms have returned, driven mainly by drought. But Shook — and others — say farmers are making the problem worse by taking land where grass used to grow and plowing it up, exposing vulnerable soil.
"The first soil storm that I saw was in 2013. That was about the height of all the grassland conversion that was happening in this area," he says.
This is where federal policy enters the picture. Most of that grassland was there in the first place because of a taxpayer-funded program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rents land from farmers across the country and pays them to grow grass, trees and wildflowers in order to protect the soil and also provide habitat for wildlife.
It's called the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Ten years ago, there was more land in the CRP than in the entire state of New York. In North Dakota, CRP land covered 5,000 square miles.
But CRP agreements only last 10 years, and when farming got more profitable about a decade ago, farmers in North Dakota pulled more than half of that land out of the CRP to grow crops like corn and soybeans. Across the country, farmers decided not to re-enroll 15.8 million acres of farmland in the CRP when those contracts expired between 2007 and 2014.
Environmentalist Craig Cox wants this on-again, off-again cycle of land protection to end.
"One of the fundamental problems is that we're not making lasting change," he says.
Cox is in charge of advocacy and research on agricultural policy at the Environmental Working Group. The EWG just released a report calling for big changes in how the Department of Agriculture spends billions of dollars in conservation money.
According to Cox, when farmers decide to take land out of the CRP, it means that most of the money spent on environmental improvements on that land is wasted. "The benefit is lost really quickly," he says.
He says that instead of renting land for 10 years, the government should buy more easements — legal restrictions ensuring, for instance, that a farmer cannot plow a piece of land for the next 30 years ... or forever.
It takes a lot of money to buy easements, so the government would have to focus on places where protecting land does the most good; where it limits water pollution most effectively, for instance, or keeps most soil from blowing away in the wind.
"If you're really targeting the most environmentally sensitive lands, and you're providing permanent protection, we're going to be able to get a lot more return for the investment that taxpayers are making," he says.
The government already is doing this on a small scale. The USDA used to buy easements to protect wetlands, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Program buys "conservation easements" that restrict a landowners right to farm particular parcels of land. In North Dakota, there's a waiting list of farmers who'd like to get into this program, and get paid to permanently protect their soil with grass.