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Land Stewardship
NPR Letter to the Editor
Felice Pace, July 12, 2005

Your recent series on the transition from crop subsidies to “land stewardship” subsidies for farmers in the US and Europe was good. But it did not address the question of whether stewardship subsidy programs already in place – as well as those being developed - actually deliver on their conservation promises.

In the US, some land stewardship agricultural subsidy programs have been in place for over 20 years. Experience with these programs on the ground suggests that the “conservation benefits” financed by taxpayers are not always delivered. A case in point is the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP.

Over the past 5 years $50 million in EQIP subsidies have been given to farmers in the Klamath River Basin. Most of the money has gone to purchase new or improved irrigation systems which, it is claimed, will reduce irrigation water use and thereby help endangered salmon and other fishes by leaving more water in streams and aquifers. Because it promised more water for rivers, conservationists, fishermen and Indian tribes supported the Klamath EQIP appropriation. Language in the final appropriations bill mandates that funding will go to those farmers who deliver the greatest water savings. However, the bill’s language also specified that water savings will be calculated on an annual basis. The result of this language on the ground is that a number of projects have been funded which actually increase removal of water from Klamath Basin streams and aquifers during the critical dry-summer period when salmon and other fishes need that water most.

The point is that the conservation benefits of agricultural stewardship subsidy programs are not guaranteed but rather are dependent on the details of legislative language, bureaucratic regulations and government agency implementation practices. The devil is definitely in the details. Furthermore, the elected representatives who champion these subsidy programs are more interested in delivering the money than in whether the programs actually deliver the claimed conservation benefits. As a result, it is virtually impossible, for example, to get congresspersons to request an investigation of whether the Klamath EQIP program has actually helped salmon by allowing more water to remain in streams.

Recently I was in the Pyrenees Mountains. Government interpretive signs claim that Pyrenees meadows are maintained by cattle, sheep and goat grazing. But the diversity of flower species was noticeably greater in the few isolated meadows that had escaped intensive grazing than in those where the herds and flocks graze. At Pic De Midi on the French side, grazing is so intense that water quality is degraded, riparian areas denuded and streambanks are actively eroding. In that case, agricultural stewardship to maintain meadows is actually overgrazing which is degrading the environment.

As the world moves from crop to stewardship agricultural subsidies it is essential that standards and audit practices are incorporated which will assure that government payments to farmers actually deliver the promised conservation benefits. Past and current performance of US agricultural conservation programs, coupled with the politicians’ single minded interest in delivering the pork and the media’s penchant for uncritically accepting claims of conservation benefit, however, do not auger well for such a result.

NPR can help improve this situation by investigating the claims of current stewardship programs and exposing problems where they exist. The Klamath EQIP program would be an excellent place to begin.

Felice Pace
Klamath, CA

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