Conservation funding highly-sought

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 28, 2003

CREP is creeping to the forefront of Minnesotans' attention.

Minnesotans like Gov. Tim Pawlenty, for instance.

"We call our state the land of 10,000 lakes and actually there are even more than that," Pawlenty said recently. "Calling ourselves that speaks to the pride and importance we place on our water quality and other natural resources."

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The governor quoted Mark Twain, who wrote so eloquently and passionately about the Mississippi River.

"Twain wrote that we should enjoy the river for what it was," Pawlenty said. "As a youth, he wrote it was a thing of pristine beauty, but as he grew up and became a steamboat captain it became something else and never again could he look at it with the innocence and beauty he saw as a youth."

Pawlenty has a similar wish for future generations of Minnesotans and that is that the state's waterways are swimmable.

CREP could help accomplish that goal.

Pawlenty was a state legislator, when the first installment of CREP was implemented four years ago.

It targeted the Minnesota River Valley Basin and by all measures it worked.

Phosphorous was reduced from each of the 100,000 acres set aside for the conservation efforts. Sediment to the river was also reduced. Wildlife efforts already have documented significant benefits to animal and bird populations, including non-game species.

Now, there is another opportunity to make a difference to the environment in Minnesota.

Decision to come

The governor was an active listener last July 17 when a forum was held at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center to review the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP).

Another forum was held that same day in Crookston for northwest Minnesota and a third forum will be held Wednesday in Willmar for southwest Minnesota.

CREP is a voluntary federal-state-local program that works with farmers and ranchers to set aside sensitive agricultural lands to enhance wildlife habitat, improve water quality, reduce soil erosion and sedimentation and reduce the impact of recurrent flooding.

Nearly $200 million in federal money combined with $40 million from the state is at stake for the three regions in Minnesota vying for CREP funds.

The Farm Bill signed into law last year by President Bush significantly strengthened the federal government's commitment to CREP.

The high-stakes CREP funds game pits state legislators, state agencies and local government units, as well as such conservation friendly organizations as Pheasants Forever and the Isaac Walton League's chapters, against each other.

Everybody wants a piece of CREP.

One CREP, three wishes

The federal government's Farm Bill limits CREP proposals to one 100,000-acre proposal.

The three proposals from Minnesota exceed the 100,000 limit.

Thus, Pawlenty must decide who will benefit the most from CREP and make application to the federal government for the money.

The northwest region's proposal is for the Red River Watershed and all or parts of 21 counties. It would target riparian zones and wetland restoration. It targets the CREP program maximum of 100,000 acres.

The southwest region proposal includes the Des Moines and Missouri Rivers Watershed in all or parts of nine counties.

It targets riparian corridor restoration, wellhead protection and wetlands restoration. The plan would encompass only 30,000 acres.

Against those two is the southeastern region's proposal.

Essentially, it targets the Lower Mississippi Valley Watershed in all or parts of 17 counties.

It focuses on highly erodible lands, riparian zones, groundwater restoration and wetland restoration.

The southeastern proposal would involve 95,730 acres.

Key: buffers, easements

Bev Nordby, district manager for the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District, spearheaded the effort to develop the CREP proposal for Southeastern Minnesota.

The proposal has the endorsement of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

It also has BALMM or the Basin Alliance for the Lower Mississippi in Minnesota.

The wide-ranging alliance includes representatives from 17 different agencies.

With so much at stake, Nordby and the other Southeastern Minnesota environmentalists sought support from everywhere, including agriculture, and got it.

Nordby, who was responsible for having the meeting with Pawlenty moved from Rochester to Austin, said BALMM made the difference.

"BALMM was formed to bring CREP to southeast Minnesota," Nordby said. "To do that, the alliance came up with specific goals and priority areas."

Kevin Scheidecker, Fillmore County SWCD, agreed to serve as BALMM's chairman and the MPCA's Norman Senjen took on coordinator duties.

Despite taking a year to write the CREP proposal for southeastern Minnesota, the result was a "really focused" effort, Nordby said.

Now, Nordby thinks the southeastern proposal has a "really good chance" of being funded.

She based that opinion on the way CREP combines the federal Conservation Reserve Program with the state's Reinvest in Minnesota program.

"It offers to purchase voluntary easements of varying durations from farmers who put cultivated farmland into permanent vegetative cover," she said.

The incentives with CREP are larger than others, which should be enough to induce landowners to participate.

The scope of the CREP proposal is huge -- 60 percent of the current land under cultivation.

It's not about flood control or prevention although it could impact in those areas, too.

One misconception among farmers is they could lose valuable pasture land.

"That's not true. The CREP program does not take pasture land; only land with a cropping history," Nordby said.

It's a big risk to crop farmers still battling fickle markets, but agriculture has been a friend to the CREP proposal.

"Agriculture should embrace the CREP proposal because it targets priority areas to stop soil erosion and reduce sedimentation, while also protecting drinking water," Nordby said.

Nordby was encouraged by the endorsements CREP received last Thursday from agriculture spokesmen.

Gary Yocom of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association gave it his vote of approval. So did Duane Alberts of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

Other endorsements came from such groups as Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the Turtle Creek Watershed Association.

Tom Butler and the Turtle Creek Watershed Association are working on a major restoration project for Lake Geneva in Freeborn County.

The lake's watershed adjoins the Minnesota River Valley basin, where incentives helped induce landowners to participate in a similar proposal four years ago.

"Buffer strips and filter strips are an important part of our plans for the lake restoration, too, just like they are in the CREP proposal," Butler said. "We have a 2,000 acre watershed area that could benefit by the CREP proposals."

Butler, a Democrat, said he was impressed with the way the governor fielded questions about the state's CREP investment.

However, Butler stopped short of predicting whether or not the southeastern proposal will win Pawlenty's approval to be fully funded.

But Nordby said as important as CREP is, no one should forget the day-to-day conservation practices going on in Minnesota.

"We also need funding on the state side, which will move ahead this next legislative session," she said. "That also is a big hurdle to jump in these tough financial times.

"There's an incredible amount of work to be done and it's so worth it because it's the environment."

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at