November 23, 2016
For years, grasslands across the country have been plowed up to make way for the production of commodity crops, such as wheat, alfalfa, corn, and soybeans. The loss of grasslands is devastating for local ecosystems, and also has long-term, negative effects for ranchers, the hunting industry, and for communities that depend on them for flood prevention and water filtration.
Last week, the World Wildlife Fund published its annual Plowprint report, which uses National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) data to track grassland conversion. The report’s primary finding is striking:
“Since 2009, 53 million acres of grassland—an area the size of Kansas—have been converted to cropland across the Great Plains alone. That represents almost 13% of the 419 million acres that remained intact in 2009…In 2015, 3.7 million [additional] acres were converted to cropland.”
The highest conversion rate over the last year was found in northern Texas, which is in the southernmost portion of the Great Plains. Grassland conversion rates were also high in parts of North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, and Kansas.
The loss of our grasslands has serious, long-lasting implications for the environment. According to the report, the conversion of 53 million acres over the last seven years released 3.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of 670 million extra cars on the road. Grasslands are also habitat to many species that can be found nowhere else on earth – including the Chestnut-collared Longspur, which has declined over 80% since the 1960s. When the nesting and foraging grounds of declining species like the Longspur are destroyed, they typically have minimal chances of finding and surviving in a new habitat.
There are, fortunately, a few key federal programs that exist to help limit the loss of grasslands. First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) operates a grasslands initiative through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Through this initiative, USDA offers 15-year conservation contracts to help livestock producers protect their grazing lands. Earlier this month, we reported on a new opportunity for small-scale dairy producers being made available through the initiative (though most of the enrollments so far have been limited to larger ranches). The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) helped create the CRP grasslands initiative in the 2014 Farm Bill and has worked since then to ensure that it targets the most critical acres, including lands at high risk of conversion and lands made up of diverse mixes of native grasses.
USDA also administers a program known as Sodsaver, which limits taxpayer-funded premium subsidies for crop insurance on land that is broken out of native grass. Championed by bipartisan cosponsors in the both the House and the Senate during the 2014 Farm Bill, Sodsaver helps ensure that federal subsidies for risk management programs are not unintentionally encouraging the conversion of prairie for crop production. Unfortunately, Sodsaver only applies in six states – Montana, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. This leaves the southern plains out entirely, including northern Texas and Kansas, areas identified by the Plowprint report as experiencing troublingly high rates of grasslands conversion.
Lastly, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers several conservation programs that can assist with grasslands conservation. These include the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which helps secure permanent easements on a small amount of grassland, and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which supports the enhancement of soil health, water quality, wildlife habitat and other natural resources on working grazing lands, both pasture and range. As we move toward the 2018 Farm Bill, NSAC will continue to look for opportunities to strengthen support for grassland protection and enhancement to reverse the trend of grassland loss as well as opportunities to strengthen policies to promote sustainable and profitable grass-based livestock and dairy production systems.