Decision time looming for state's CRP lands
MONTEVIDEO -- No matter if you look at it from the barrel of a shotgun, through your favorite bird-watching binoculars or a laboratory microscope, the results are obvious.
The grasslands made possible throughout Minnesota's farm country by the Conservation Reserve Program have resulted in more wildlife and better water quality.
There are 1.7 million acres of CRP lands in Minnesota, but contracts on 700,000 of those acres will expire this year.
Economic pressures will be influencing the decisions of the farmers whose CRP contracts will be expiring, and no one can predict how many acres will be kept in the program, according to D.J. Mulla, professor and Larson chair for Soil and Water Resources at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.
"This is something we are very concerned about,'' Mulla told an audience in Montevideo on Jan. 14.
He is helping lead work to rank the ecological value of the state's CRP lands.
Some hope that state Legacy monies will be made available if needed to sweeten the pot and help make it possible to retain those CRP acres offering the greatest ecological benefits.
Mulla said that he's hoping to get as much of the study completed while the Legislature is in session and requests can be made for funds. Also, the information needs to reach National Resource and Conservation Service, and Soil and Water Conservation District offices across the state prior to the September contract expiration dates. Some of the "working tools'' for ranking the lands are already being made available via the Internet to those offices, he said.
Research has already documented the water quality benefits that CRP lands offer. One study looked at the West Fork of Beaver Creek, where reductions in sediment and phosphorus loads were attributed to CRP lands.
Mulla pointed out that significant reductions in sediment and nutrient loads reaching waterways can be achieved by enrolling relatively small amounts of land, provided they are strategically located. In the West Fork of Beaver Creek, the improvements are realized with only 3.7 percent of the land in the watershed committed to CRP, RIM and other conservation programs. But, he pointed out that 10.4 percent of those lands are located within 50 feet of a ditch, stream or other waterway.
His work currently looks at features of the terrain, soil and other factors to provide an index of the crop production potential, susceptibility to erosion and ecological merits. The soil data itself provides a good idea of which lands are most likely to be considered for conversion back to crop production, while also showing those where the potential for erosion is greatest.
Some of the most challenging work is still ahead, as researchers at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, work to analyze the wildlife benefits of various lands. This part of the work is only beginning, according to Mulla.
Ranking land for its wildlife value will be difficult, according to some attending the presentation.
All grass lands offer wildlife benefits, noted Dave Trauba, manager for the Lac qui Parle wildlife area. He pointed out that those located in areas where rare bird populations still exist or where efforts to re-introduce species may desire higher priority. He noted that the rebounding population of native prairie chickens in northwestern Minnesota can be attributed to the expansion of grasslands made possible by CRP.
Unfortunately, some of the data collected to date by Mulla indicates that portions of the prairie chicken range in northwestern Minnesota, as well as areas of southeastern Minnesota, appear to be those most likely to be converted back to crop production due to their soil and productivity potential.