Politics on the prairie

I hope you'll pardon me today if I get up on my soapbox and rail a bit about some of the narrow-minded politicians who are allowed to make important decisions that affect all of us.

It irks me to no end when these short-sighted nitwits cater to big-money interests instead of doing what's right for present and future generations of Americans. So allow me to rant and rave a few minutes and get this out my system.

Wildlife and taxpayers have been mistreated once again, and I figure someone should at least tell you there's a turd hidden under the corn, beans and bread on your dinner plate, and some politicians put it there.

Here's what's happening. As part of the 2008 Farm Bill, the governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and Iowa were given the opportunity to opt-in to the federal "Sodsaver" program, which makes newly plowed native grassland areas ineligible for crop insurance or disaster payments.

Proponents of the Sodsaver provision hoped to stop the illogical practice of subsidizing destruction of some of the world's most biologically diverse and threatened grasslands. The measure does not prohibit landowners from planting commodities, but it does remove the perverse government-funded incentives to plow up land with low crop-yield potential just to get an insurance pay-out.

According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report, the U.S. lost 25 million acres of grasslands between 1982 and 2003, largely as a result of Farm Bill commodity subsidies like the crop insurance program.

Most remaining large tracts of native prairie in the U.S. are found in the five states involved in the Sodsaver provision. This region is full of shallow ponds formed by glaciers called "prairie potholes."

The lands around these ponds are generally arid and rocky, and while they are well-suited to grazing livestock, they are ill-suited for row crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans.

More importantly, these lands provide ideal habitat for nesting waterfowl. Millions of ducks are reared in this Prairie Pothole National Priority Area each year and migrate to places like Chesapeake Bay, Arkansas' Grand Prairie, Louisiana's Gulf Coast and California's Central Valley.

Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? States that opt in to Sodsaver would end the moronic practice of rewarding landowners for plowing up valuable prairie habitat that has little agricultural value to begin with.

But one must take into account that politicians like these five governors rarely take actions common-sense people would deem appropriate. And that was the case in this instance.

A target date of February 15, 2009, was set for the states to take formal action on Sodsaver. And, not surprisingly, not a single state did so.

In effect, governors John Hoeven of North Dakota, Michael Rounds of South Dakota, Brian Schweitzer of Montana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Chet Culver of Iowa thumbed their noses at conservation, showing the world they don't give a damn about promoting healthy land stewardship within their states.

Their inaction on the Sodsaver provision showed they would rather continue practices that benefit few to the detriment of many. And ignorance is no excuse.

Conservationists and taxpayer watchdog groups alike hailed the inclusion of the Sodsaver provision in the 2008 Farm Bill as passed by both the House and Senate. And dozens of conservation organizations joined together be sure the governors were well-informed of the consequences their decisions on Sodsaver might have.

We shouldn't be surprised, of course, that governors of states where farming interests are so powerful should take this course of action. But we shouldn't be apathetic either.

The governors' failure to do what common sense dictates is right could have long-lasting negative effects for all of us.

Consider, for example, these facts. Over the past six years, the Dakotas and Montana have lost a half million acres of native prairie already, destruction encouraged by high commodity prices and the federal mandate to produce more ethanol, a corn-derived motor fuel additive.

This habitat is irreplaceable. And Ducks Unlimited biologists estimate an additional 3.3 million acres of native prairie could be lost during the next five years without Sodsaver  the equivalent of 15 percent of the remaining 22 million acres. These native prairie conversions will ultimately reduce fall waterfowl migrations across North America.

The economic ripple effect of losing native prairie will be in the millions of dollars. According to the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, losing native prairie will cost taxpayers more than $119 million dollars.

In addition, with the decrease in ducks from the migration, part of the $1.3 billion dollars that migratory bird hunters contribute to rural economies across the nation will be lost.

What can be done to halt these negative changes?

"While the door has closed on this opportunity to protect the prairies, we are working with members of Congress and the Administration to come up with solutions that will ensure the prairies are not lost," said Don Young, Executive Vice President of Ducks Unlimited. "These habitats represent some of the most productive waterfowl breeding areas in North America, and we will continue to work to secure their long-term existence."

The situation is dire, but you can help stop the devastating loss of native prairie by making a donation to Ducks Unlimited's Rescue the Duck Factory campaign. Launched on September 1, 2008, this important program was conceived to obtain funds needed to pay for conservation easements in the Prairie Pothole region.

It already is working. As of February 16, 2009, 2,933 acres of wetlands and 11,239 acres of grasslands had been protected with perpetual easements. The Fish and Wildlife Service, DU's key conservation partner in the Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, also has obtained signed options on another 1,436 acres of wetlands and 10,841 acres of grassland. This brings the total acres secured since the launch of the campaign to 26,449.

Although significant progress has been made, the need is still great. There are 597 landowners on the waiting list for easements in North Dakota and South Dakota offering over 244,358 acres for protection. More than $88 million is needed to secure this habitat.

DU hopes to raise a portion of this money through private gifts. Each dollar given to the Rescue the Duck Factory campaign will be leveraged at least three times with matching funds from corporations, federal duck stamps, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and other sources.

At current land values, grassland easements can be purchased from cooperating ranchers at an average cost of $360 an acre. These easements are permanent and prevent grasslands from being plowed and wetlands from being drained regardless of future ownership.

Time is not on our side. The U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole region already has lost more than 70 percent of its original grassland, and most of the remaining 22 million acres of native prairie in the region is vulnerable to conversion. I encourage you to help.

To make a gift to DU's Rescue the Duck Factory campaign, please contribute online at www.ducks.org/helptoday.