If you love America’s prairies, you should take a look at what’s happening in Congress right now.
Every five years, Congress takes up the legislation known as the farm bill to shape most of our country’s food and agriculture policies, from crop insurance and subsidies to food assistance programs. These issues tend to dominate the debate, but conservation measures are also critical components of the bill.
Unfortunately, the last version to come before the House — the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2) — would have significantly undermined measures aimed at helping farmers and ranchers conserve nature across America. Fortunately, on May 22, the House rejected the bill and plans to take it up again this month. This gives voters an opportunity to urge their representatives to strengthen the bill’s conservation measures.
In particular, Congress needs to incorporate a bipartisan measure introduced in October 2017 by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., along with U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D. The objective of their bill, the American Prairie Conservation Act (S. 1913 and H.R. 3939), is to conserve native grasslands across the U.S.
There are four primary reasons it is important to protect grasslands nationwide:
1) America’s grasslands stretching from Montana to Texas are home to myriad wildlife species, from swift foxes to songbirds. Many birders, anglers and other nature lovers, find rest and recreation in this quintessentially American landscape.
2) Grasslands help maintain clean waterways. When native grasses are rooted in the ground, they hold moisture and soil in place. When that grass is removed, soil dries out and erodes much more easily, leading sediment, phosphorus and nitrogen to run off into rivers, lakes and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico, where it pollutes drinking water and threatens fishing and tourism-based economies. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that conserving healthy grasslands from conversion to cropland could save 1.7 trillion gallons of water.
3) Grasslands are some of the most potent forces in the fight against climate change. Grasslands pull massive amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, where it traps heat, and store it in the ground. Globally, soils store nearly twice as much carbon as is stored in the atmosphere.
According to a 2009 grassland carbon study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 343 billion tons of carbon are retained in the ground, nearly 50 percent more than is stored in forests worldwide. For the entire planet’s health, we must keep the carbon there.
4) Grasslands are critical for ranching. Cattle can do something that most other animals cannot do: They eat grass that’s inedible to us and turn it into edible protein. When land is good for growing grass alone, cattle ranching can be the best means of keeping that grass healthy. Not only is it environmentally beneficial, but it is also economically viable.
We know the American Prairie Conservation Act will reduce the plowing up of prairie because it includes the successful “Sod Saver” program established in the 2013 farm bill in six states, including Minnesota. In a nutshell, “Sod Saver” disincentives the plow-up of native grasslands that have marginal productive value.
Congress should also seize the opportunity to restore full funding for the conservation programs and maintain support for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which gives farmers and ranchers the incentive to implement comprehensive conservation on working lands.
Across the Great Plains, more and more grasslands are being plowed up to grow crops. And with most of the best land already in use, what’s left to plow is often marginal at best. If this rate of plow-up continues, scientists have warned that we are in danger of causing another Dust Bowl, which crippled farmers more than 80 years ago.
It is hard to blame anyone for plowing up sod when policies incentivize such activity. However, adjusting these policies can save both grasslands and taxpayer subsidies, estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to exceed $50 million over the next 10 years.
The failure of the farm bill gives Congress one more chance to get its conservation measures right. By following Klobuchar’s and Walz’s lead and including a national “Sod Saver” program in the farm bill, Congress can take the rare step of passing bipartisan legislation that benefits the environment, taxpayers and agricultural communities in equal measure.
As Minnesotans, we are fortunate to have leaders like Klobuchar and Walz who care about grassland conservation. If you, too, care about the prairies, send them your thanks — and urge your other representatives in Congress to make “Sod Saver” a national program.
Cheryl Olseth, of Minneapolis, is director of the Olseth Family Foundation, a member of the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Advisory Committee and an advisory board member for Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy.