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Why is the National Wildlife Federation suing the United States government over its handling of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)?

That single program has created more wildlife habitat than any other federal program in the last 15 years: To date, 34 million acres of former farmland are in cover that provides some of the best nesting habitat for waterfowl, upland game birds and songbirds in the nation.

This cost taxpayers just $1.7 billion -- a drop in the bucket of federal spending, which generally shortchanges wildlife. The entire U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service gets just $1.99 billion annually -- and that includes the money passed through to state wildlife programs and the $390 million allowed to operate and maintain federal wildlife refuges.

But CRP dollars have had real impact.

"The program has revived prairie grouse populations and, depending on what part of the country you are in, has really aided bobwhite quail, whitetail deer and wild turkey, too," said biologist Ben Deeble of the National Wildlife Federation.

The CRP obviously helps farmers, as well. They get varying annual payouts that depend on what cover is planted and whether they contract for 10 or 15 years. The CRP is so popular with farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and nature lovers that Congress recently expanded the program and President Bush signed it immediately.

So why sue? In a word, mismanagement. The NWF alleges the Farm Service Administration (which handles CRP contracts) has been subverting the bill, which was aimed at helping wildlife as much as it was meant to help farmers on marginal lands.

"The contracts call for land to be planted in a cover crop -- typically warm season grasses like crested wheatgrass, intermediate wheatgrass and other prairie grasses mixed with some timothy," said Deeble. "In some parts of the West it takes five years until this grows to provide good nesting cover."

Under the original CRP bill, one could graze or cut hay on those acres only in times of severe drought. The new bill allows haying or grazing every three years. In some areas that might help the cover crop, "but in the intermountain West it prevents there ever being good nesting cover. That's really allowing double-dipping -- getting paid to leave land fallow and yet be able to harvest the fodder, too," Deeble said.

Moreover, the FSA, by allowing state farm bureaus to set the rules, is allowing some haying and grazing during the spring nesting season, preventing birds from bringing off broods.

So the NWF filed a suit Oct. 20 seeking to compel the feds to do more than pay lip service to conservation and wildlife habitat, as they seem to be doing now.

In New York (not mentioned in the lawsuit, by the way) farmers who qualify get paid an average of $44 an acre. In all, some 1,800 farms have 122,000 acres in CRP that brings them a total of $2.5 million. In some cases that extra payment may be what helps them stay in farming.

That's another reason conservation groups back the CRP: They see the need for keeping land free from development.

Per-acre payment varies from $27 an acre in Wyoming to $103 an acre in Iowa. In North Dakota, 3.3 million acres are under CRP, bringing in $111 million to that state's farms and ranches.

I have seen the great benefit these set-asides have had on ducks, sandhill cranes and prairie grouse in that state. True, the CRP also helps old-timers whose kids have left the land. Some have been able to plant sunflower (where do you think all that bird seed comes from?), get in the harvest, then head to Tucson, Ariz., to escape the harsh prairie winter.

Yes, CRP is working and we should support it. But not if the intent of the program is being twisted. The NWF (a private conservation group) is willing to sue to make sure our taxes are spent as Congress intended.

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