Randy D. Rodgers, a wildlife biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, knelt in a field of native grass in Ness City that he says has attracted wildlife back to the prairie, including the lesser and greater prairie chicken.

Randy D. Rodgers, a wildlife biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, knelt in a field of native grass in Ness City that he says has attracted wildlife back to the prairie, including the lesser and greater prairie chicken. (John Donnelly/ Globe Staff)

 

Farmers could get crop change

A call for fuel may bring cut in grassy fields

NESS CITY, Kan. -- For as far as Randy D. Rodgers could see, prairie grasses waved in the wind.

``The thing about standing here is that it gives you a feeling there's still hope in the world," Rodgers, a wildlife research biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, said as he bent down recently to examine clumps of native bluestem grass, on land that had been wall-to-wall corn. ``We have a real feel for the wilderness again, of the true West."

But the restoration of the prairies under a national conservation program is now in jeopardy from another environmental push: the drive for alternative fuels, specifically ethanol, which is made from corn. It's a tradeoff that some in Kansas and elsewhere say will be environmentally detrimental.

Several members of Congress and their staff workers said in interviews that grasslands protected under the Conservation Reserve Program are likely to be used to cultivate corn or other crops as part of next year's farm bill. President Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, endorsed ethanol's promise as a renewable source of energy.

Many environmentalists, though, criticized the drive for increased ethanol production because growing corn for ethanol has not been proved to be energy-efficient, and because it will cost the nation vast acreage of land that has gone wild.

The Midwest's tall-grass prairies are perhaps the nation's most vulnerable habitat, with just 3 percent of the original lands left. The conservation program added more than 36 million acres of mixed grassland to the prairies, bringing back wildlife, especially birds, that had left years ago.

``The question with this is finding the right balance between keeping the environmental benefit" of the conservation program ``and meeting this new demand for alternative fuels," Representative Jerry Moran, a Republican representing a district in central Kansas, said recently.

``We've seen so many wildlife benefits" with the conservation program, Moran said. ``But the potential benefits with ethanol are the bright spot for rural America right now."

The return to natural lands has not been cheap: Last year, taxpayers spent $1.8 billion for the grasslands as part of $25 billion in federal agriculture subsidies, and Congress is mindful of ways to trim the federal budget deficit.

The US agriculture department's chief economist, Keith Collins, estimated for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that 7 million acres under the conservation program's protection could be plowed under in the next few years to grow corn for ethanol.

The Iowa Farm Bureau, which represents thousands of corn growers, voted in August to promote a plan to stop enrolling land in 10-year grassland contracts, and to limit the conservation initiative to areas in ``critical need" of protection.

``We don't want to see a rush to `gold-mine' those grasslands because it would have major implications to wildlife habitat," said Lisa Kelley, director of public policy at the National Corn Growers Association, a group with 32,300 dues-paying corn growers that advocates greater ethanol production.

``But many of our growers," Kelley said, ``are weighing whether it's profitable to bring land out of retirement, and ethanol is behind that."

Many of the farmers in the grasslands effort signed 10-year contracts to keep the grasslands, but many of those contracts will expire next year and in 2008.

In a generation's time, the program has reclaimed about twice as much land area in the continental United States as has the better-known National Wildlife Refuge system, almost all of it in the Great Plains.

(Only a small number of New England farmers are enrolled in the conservation initiative, because the financial incentives favor large tracts of land that are more likely to be found in the Midwest.)

From Indiana to Montana, vast tracts of crop land have been transformed into a mosaic of grazing space for cattle, fields of crops, and areas of wild grasses.

The program began partly as a way out of an agricultural crisis in the early 1980s, when a glut of crops drove down prices. If the government paid farmers not to plant crops, the theory held, the smaller harvest would boost the prices of the crop.

In addition, the recovered grasslands would act as a barrier against soil erosion, a source of pollution of groundwater .

But it had another benefit as well: When native plants like switchgrass, sideoats grama, and Indian grass returned, wildlife came back with it, in strength and greater variety few had expected. Mule deer, ring-necked pheasants, and most notably, the greater and lesser prairie chicken, are more firmly established.

Hunters have been strong advocates of the grasslands program, as have farmers -- though for different reasons. At the County Seat Cafe in Gove, a tiny town about 340 miles west of Kansas City, farmers praised the program between bites of their hamburgers and drags on their cigarettes.

``I wouldn't have been here if it weren't for the CRP," said Wayne Cook, 50, wearing a sweat-stained Phillips Seed baseball cap.

``It's a great deal. All you do is plant grass and you get a check," Cook said.

Cook pocketed $8,800 last year for putting aside 240 acres of grassland that he does not have to water, fertilize, or harvest. A few tables down, Marvin Beesley, 56, recently entered the program and collected $60,500 for putting 1,300 acres into grassland.

``Why did I do it? I'll tell ya. Six years of drought, that's why," said Beesley, a large man with sandy hair and a walrus mustache.

While some farmers will now want to plant corn for the payoff from ethanol, Beesley, wary of more dry seasons, isn't one them. ``Out here, you pretty well farm until you die, so it feels strange not to farm. But it also feels good to get the check" from the conservation program, he said.

John Donnelly can be reached at donnelly@globe.com.  

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company