Dennis Anderson: Future of wildlife might be linked to biofuels

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2008 - 4:07 PM

The next decade could prove critical for wildlife in Minnesota, as uncertainty abounds over which way farmlands go in regards to ethanol production.

During the next 10 years, Minnesota could resemble a farmland wildlife Mecca in which pheasants and other upland birds thrive in vast fields of native grasses grown for fuel. Or it could resemble a monocultural wasteland, with relatively few acres enrolled in state or federal set-aside programs, corn stretching from border to border -- and state pheasant numbers teetering near all-time lows.

Not since the loss of the Soil Bank in the early 1960s and the reign of "Plow It All" Earl Butz as agriculture secretary a decade later has farmland wildlife faced so much uncertainty.

The reason: Government biofuel mandates intended to reduce the nation's dependency on foreign oil and find economically viable replacements for the world's finite crude oil deposits have helped spike commodity prices, particularly corn.

Already, corn starch is used to make ethanol in some 17 Minnesota plants, with more under construction. Minnesotans burned more than 250 million gallons of corn ethanol in their vehicles in 2006.

The state's rush to corn ethanol is a disaster for wildlife that likely will only get worse, said University of Minnesota economics professor C. Ford Runge.

"It's a dark forecast for fish and wildlife in Minnesota for the next 10 to 15 years," Runge said. As the price of corn increases, he said, it is capitalized as a value of the land, "and it becomes untenable to use it for other purposes."

Still, corn is unlikely to provide the fuel of the future. Researchers worldwide, including at the U, are racing to develop alternative fuel sources. Some would be made from wildlife-friendly switchgrass and other native plants, as well as wood fiber and perhaps corn and other waste.

In the latter scenario, ethanol generally would be made from cellulose rather than corn starch. Instead of corn, the raw material could be a mix of grasses and other plants.

To a great degree, the future of Minnesota farmland wildlife depends on what "fuel" is grown here.

"If the cellulosic industry becomes profitable, we could see significant amount of corn acreage replaced by willow trees, hybrid poplars and switchgrass," said U agronomy professor David Mulla.

Mulla is part of a team developing a long-range statewide conservation plan for the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.

But the technology to produce cellulosic ethanol on an industrial scale, at a competitive price, is undeveloped. Runge is among those who don't expect it soon.

"I hope they're correct in the long run," he said. "But these 'Gee Whiz Mr. Science Guys' out there acknowledge the economic efficiencies just aren't there now."

Meanwhile, Runge said, the "dead zone" at the mouth of the Mississippi River is growing due to higher nitrogen loads on farmlands upriver -- including in Minnesota -- that accompany increased corn production.

"The worst thing to ever happen to fish, duck and pheasant habitat is corn-based biofuels," he said.

CRP since 1985

Pheasants Forever, whose Pheasant Fest concludes today at RiverCentre in St. Paul, was among the first wildlife groups to push Congress to include broad-scale, wildlife-enhancing set-aside programs in the federal farm bill.

In 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) debuted in the federal farm bill, and has been included in each similar measure since. But rules for lands qualifying for enrollment change with each new bill. Recent provisions exclude many Minnesota lands that previously could have been enrolled.

Now farmers -- lured by high corn prices -- appear to be exiting the program in droves. Minnesota has already lost 80,000 CRP acres. According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife research biologist Kurt Haroldson, about 800,000 more Minnesota CRP acres could be gone by 2013, as landowner contracts expire.

New enrollees might make up part or all of the difference, Haroldson said, depending on how the new farm bill -- awaiting action in a Congressional conference committee -- ultimately is written.

"It's a question of what the rates will be and how many landowners sign up," he said. Few producers will set aside land when they can make more by planting it to cash crops.

"The future is more uncertain than I've seen it for a long time. In the short term, we're going to take some pretty serious hits. Farmland conservation is simply going to cost more money. In the long term, we could come out OK if grass biofuel is developed the right way and we achieve the goal of a diversified farmland landscape."

The DNR is advocating that land and water conservation be primary considerations as the biofuels industry develops, said fish and wildlife division director Dave Schad.

"Our challenge is to manage natural resources in the face of a lot of uncertainty," Schad said. "By 'being at the table' as this industry evolves, we can ensure that we have options and the ability to respond."

How far away is the future?

Jim Bowyer believes development of cellulosic ethanol efficiencies are inevitable and could occur in as few as five years.

"Some people say it will be three to five years, some say as many as 10," said Bowyer, an emeritus professor in the U's bioproducts and biosystems engineering department. "Whenever it is, the day it does, corn ethanol goes away almost the next day."

Future unknowns are many, Bowyer said, but a relative certainty is that the Earth -- perhaps in the next two to three decades -- will reach a point where it will not be possible to produce enough petroleum to match rising global consumption. Meanwhile, he said, as long as oil stays above, say, $55 a barrel, research will continue into alternatives.

If in the meantime cars are developed that achieve 100 miles per gallon, the equation changes, he said. And genetic engineering is likely to continue to improve yields of whatever is grown on the landscape -- also potentially changing how the future unfolds.

And if a switch to cellulosic ethanol is eventually made from corn starch ethanol, government incentives, or safeguards, might be necessary for farmers, because two to three years are required to establish alternative sources of cellulose, such as native prairie plants or tree plantations.

The good news for wildlife and conservationists, Bowyer said, is that soil productivity must be maintained, no matter what is grown on the land.

"That's got to be the priority, always," he said. "And part of that is maintaining our groundwater. So no matter what we grow, soil conservation must be part of the equation."

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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