Steven Rinella, host of the hit TV show “MeatEater” discusses the importance of private lands conservation programs in the Farm Bill and their role in ensuring hunting and fishing opportunities.
Ducks Unlimited’s governmental affairs staff sit down to discuss the future of the Farm Bill with Rep. Kristi Noem (SD) and Rep. Tim Walz (MN). Watch the video below to find out where conservation, commerce and our sporting trations fit in.
I count myself among most South Dakotans who enjoy having snow around, as long as it stays in one place. Those moments are fleeting however, as our big prairie sky is almost always producing a big prairie wind. Give us all a day or two of blowing snow, and we soon begin to long for spring.
Invariably, when South Dakota is gripped by a frozen blast of cold and snow, my mind drifts to those pioneers who settled this land in the latter half of the 19th century. How did they make it through the winter on a treeless prairie? And when those first warm southerly breezes arrived in March, what possessed them to stay?
The U.S. Government was probably thinking the same thing when it doled out land to those individuals from around the world who took advantage of the Homestead Act and other land acts. Part of the agreement was that for a 160 acre claim, a person had to work the land, build a house and live on the homestead for five years.
Many of these homesteaders also planted trees as did their descendants. In turn, the care that these hearty souls poured in to their trees came full circle, as root systems were established for young ash, elm and box elders. With each ring of growth, those trees began to protect and sustain the farms of those who planted them, and farms and communities began to take root in the prairie sod.
Save for two years at graduate school in Arizona, I’ve lived my entire life in South Dakota, and I take pride in a state that was settled by a hardy brand of folk who have always had a deep connection to the land. As an outdoor writer, I am drawn to explore this relationship between human caregivers and the landscape and wildlife that give so much back in return.
A year or so ago my phone rang with a call from my father. There seemed to be a story, he said, out east of town. He thought I should check it out.
He gave me a name and phone number, and I made plans to call when time allowed. But one thing led to another, and it was weeks before I made good on my intentions to contact this individual.
When I did, he informed me that the window for the story had likely passed.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what was it about?”
A half-mile of trees, to be exact – a massive stand of hardwoods planted when folks first settled the ground over 100 years ago.
“What happened to them?”
“They’re gone. Bulldozed. Looks like they’re going to plant it this spring.”
I made the trip out to look for myself, and if I didn’t know better, I’d say that the trees were never there in the first place. The wind of change had blown swiftly through this township in eastern South Dakota, and, sadly, it continues to blow today.
If you travel along any one of the grids of gravel roads in South Dakota, it is hard to ignore that this landscape is transforming before your very eyes.
It’s not just trees, either: piles of dirt line freshly trenched waterways to move snow melt and rain more quickly from point A to point B; miles of black, perforated plastic tubing stand coiled along field edges, ready for the tile knife; and acre upon acre of native prairie – ground that has never seen a plow – lies bare.
And then there are the cattails – those thick, stubborn stands of heavy cover that sprout up where moisture gathers. Burned, mowed, plowed, trenched – there is a war on cattails these days, and one battle has hit particularly close to home.
Growing up, I had the fortune of being able to literally walk out my front door, cross the road and begin pheasant hunting. I missed more than I hit in those days, but my odds of bringing a rooster home increased significantly when the weather turned cold.
The first blanket of snow caused every pheasant in the section to congregate in a winding stand of cattails that was visible from my driveway, and I hit the thick cover buoyed with knowledge that there were heart-pounding flushes in my near-future.
This past fall, those cattails were mowed then baled and the ground plowed deep. An excavator made quick work of the waterway, so water will never collect in that slough bottom again.
Neither will cattails.
Neither will pheasants.
Neither will a hunter.
The landscape of eastern South Dakota is different than the one that ushered me through school and those first years as a hunter. It is different than the one that welcomed me home from Arizona just five years ago.
The evolution of a new South Dakota has its roots in a several factors: a strong commodity market; sky-rocketing land prices and cash rental rates; corn ethanol; subsidized crop insurance; advancements in agricultural technologies; and a Farm Bill that doesn’t provide competitive rates for conservation programs.
Some might say that broad changes are part of an inevitable march of progress in a state that depends heavily on agriculture to survive.
But can we really label this “progress” or “improvement” when the diversity of our landscape is being compromised? When hunters and wildlife have fewer places to go? When “what’s best for the land” is replaced with “what’s best right now”?
The wind is howling rather wildly as I write this today, and the snow is blowing in circles out my window.
But relief will be here before long. Flocks of migrating waterfowl will begin to arrive on the first warm winds of spring and settle on those temporary and seasonal wetlands that remain; prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse will dance where grass still stands; and rooster pheasants will stand and crow where a diverse landscape has survived.
South Dakota is changing, but my hope is that our roots still run deep to a place where conservation means giving a little of ourselves for the greater good of the land. And her people.
Author, John Pollmann is a life-long bird hunter and freelance outdoor writer from South Dakota. A 2012 recipient of the John Madson Fellowship from the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Mr. Pollmann is a regular contributor to the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader; provides a bi-monthly report on South Dakota for the Minnesota Outdoor News; and is the waterfowl columnist for the Aberdeen (SD) American News Outdoor Forum. Other writing credits include the pages of magazines for Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and American Waterfowler.
In addition to outdoor writing, Mr. Pollmann holds an advanced degree in music and currently teaches at Pipestone Area School in Pipestone, MN. He is an active member of Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, Pheasants Forever, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and was recently named to the country’s first conservation pro-staff with Vanishing Paradise.
Mr. Pollmann lives in Dell Rapids, SD with his wife Amber, their son Miles and a yellow Labrador named Murphy.
Ken Burns new documentary, “The Dust Bowl,” depicts a full-blown ecological disaster, the likes of which never had been seen in America.
The dust storms that swept across Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and other Great Plains states in the late 1920s and early 1930s were largely caused by the combination of drought and high winds on a landscape that had seen the near total conversion of native grasslands and wetlands to row crop production.
As I write this, similar conversions of native grasslands and wetlands are occurring alarmingly quickly. I have to wonder: Is federal farm policy helping write the script for a new Dust Bowl?
In the last several years, crop prices have steadily increased. As many of you know, corn and soybean prices hit a record high this summer. These high crop prices create immense pressure to convert marginally productive grasslands, wetlands and forestlands to row crops.
Federal crop insurance policy removes much of the risk associated with converting these marginal acres. Unlike every other federal farm program, crop insurance does not require farmers to be “conservation compliant.” This means that crop insurance benefits can be maintained even when farmers convert ecologically valuable wetlands, grasslands and till highly erodible lands.
How do we stop history from repeating itself? By passing a strong federal Farm Bill that includes measures addressing conservation compliance.
I can only hope that the black-and-white images of families living inside dusty houses with potato sacks over their heads will capture the attention of our elected officials tasked as they work toward passing the next farm bill. Or maybe the testimony of beautiful, old, wise faces telling of their parents’ mental breakdowns from the devastation catch the eye of members of the House Committee on Agriculture.
We can’t afford to let history repeat itself this time. Contact your member of Congress and ask him or her to take action on the Farm Bill and make sure that the conservation programs that have helped to prevent environmental calamities like the Dust Bowl are strengthened.
President of Sundog, Inc., a business development firm based in Fayetteville, Ark., that focuses on agriculture, alternative energy and green products, Tim Kizer is also the private lands field representative for the TRCP.
Despite its name, the Farm Bill isn’t just for farmers; the legislation benefits Americans of all stripes, including sportsmen like you. The conservation title of the Farm Bill directs more than $5 billion each year to key private lands conservation initiatives in all 50 states.
These programs help restore and conserve fish and wildlife habitat, improve the quality of our air and water and reduce soil erosion. The Farm Bill helps our nation’s farmers and ranchers responsibly steward the American landscape, an investment that boasts fantastic returns.
Passed every five years, the current Farm Bill is set to expire on Sept. 30. Congressional inaction on the Farm Bill puts billions of dollars of cost-effective conservation funding and millions of acres of incredibly productive fish and wildlife habitat on the chopping block. These are the very places on which hunters and anglers across the country depend for quality experiences afield.
On Sept. 30, the federal Farm Bill will expire, along with billions of dollars for conservation funding. Contact your representatives and urge them to pass a Farm Bill now!
This time of year always reminds me of corn, sunflowers, soybeans and power lines. Dove season is upon us.
For wingshooters across the country, early September dove hunts represent the beginning of a season full of great days afield. In my mind, nothing quite beats the excitement of a morning spent drinking coffee, gathering gear and heading out to a familiar dove field. And of course, the chance to hassle your buddies for missing speedy doves!
In D.C., another kind of excitement is in the air right now: Congress is back in session. This is the time of year when legislators return from summer recess and work to make final headway on policy issues before election mania takes over.
This Fall will be particularly challenging as Congress has not yet agreed on funding for federal agencies and programs with only a matter of weeks before the end of the fiscal year. Our elected officials are facing pressure to cut budgets from all sides; however, common ground on where and how much to cut remains elusive. Interest groups confound this process further, complicating choices over the soundest federal investments.
For sportsmen, the outcome of the federal funding process – also known as the appropriations process – is critically important, as funding levels for nearly all federal programs that support conservation on public and private lands are decided through federal appropriations bills. From the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which provides match grants to groups like Ducks Unlimited to restore and protect wetlands, to conservation programs in the Farm Bill, which provide financial incentives for landowners to forgo cultivating ecologically valuable lands, the good conservation work on which we depend to keep game on the range and ducks in the air would not happen without healthy federal funding.
Unfortunately, Congress recently has been more than willing to pass bills that massively cut conservation programs. The House Interior appropriations bill reported out of committee not long ago included a 22-percent cut in funding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a 37-percent cut to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund and a whopping 80-percent cut to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which directs a portion of oil and gas leasing revenues to fish and wildlife conservation and increased public access for recreation. As sportsmen, conservation funding is our lifeblood. We have a responsibility to be part of the conversation to keep funding levels as strong as possible.
What is the TRCP doing? The TRCP has continued its work with America’s Voice for Conservation, Recreation and Preservation, a coalition that earlier this year delivered a letter to congressional leaders signed by more than 1,200 groups advocating for programs that support habitat conservation, outdoor recreation activities, and the preservation of historic places.
The AVCRP coalition will work not only to hold the line during the yearly appropriations cycle but to elevate conservation as a congressional priority in the long term. Learn more about the role that conservation funding plays in the economy and in your next trip into the field.
Not long ago, I was graphically reminded of the critical importance of the Farm Bill to conservation of privately owned lands in the American West.
A map of our federal lands I saw during a presentation depicted the western half of the country largely in various shades of green, showing public ownership in one form or another. Lands east of the Great Plains, however, remained largely devoid of color, indicating areas under private ownership. I realized that here – on these lands that provide key habitat to fish and wildlife species prized by sportsmen, offer unmatched outdoor recreational opportunities and feed the world – the Farm Bill’s central role in our sporting heritage becomes paramount.
The current Farm Bill expires on Sept. 30, 2012. In its present iteration, the bill has assisted farmers and landowners in conserving millions of acres of fish and wildlife habitat and making improvements to farming operation that have reduced soil erosion and nutrient runoff. If the bill is allowed to expire, private lands conservation in this country may come to a screeching halt.
By keeping nutrients and topsoil out of streams and rivers, Farm Bill conservation programs reduce the need for costly, often ineffective, water quality mitigation efforts. By conserving and restoring wetlands, these also can help reduce the impacts of downstream flooding as well as restore groundwater aquifers.
In places like the Chesapeake Bay and in Montana and Wyoming, Farm Bill programs help farmers reduce their potential regulatory burden. The Chesapeake Bay watershed initiative incentivizes farmers to reduce their nitrogen runoff to improve the health of the nation’s largest estuary, and the sage grouse initiative in the Inter-Mountain West assists ranchers in keeping this iconic bird off the endangered species list. As these conservation goals are met, farmers, ranchers and landowners can focus on making a living and not on the threat of new or expanding regulations.
For sportsmen, the list of benefits we derive from the Farm Bill is a long one. The bill’s conservation programs restore and conserve habitat for a litany of waterfowl and upland game birds, and the Voluntary Public Access program is the only federal program aimed at increasing public access to private lands for hunting and angling, thereby enhancing the quality of our days afield.
Watch an episode of “TRCP’s Conservation Field Notes” in which Steven Rinella discusses key benefits of the Farm Bill.