Land conservation signup is set

February 28, 2010 , Des Moines register

The news drew a standing ovation at the National Pheasant Fest luncheon at the Polk County Convention Complex because the added land could mean more habitat, better hunting, cleaner streams, and fuller cash registers around Iowa. The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers rent for land on which they plant grasslands or other specially designed habitat. 

The former Iowa governor also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to allow landowners nationwide to enroll up to 300,000 additional acres in initiatives specifically designed to help ducks, quail and pheasants. 
Those programs will be offered in the continuous Conservation Reserve Program signup beginning March 15. 
Vilsack, a hunter himself, said the new conservation effort is about buoying rural areas that are losing population and jobs — not to mention cleaning waterways, producing renewable energy and persuading Americans, especially children, to get outside more for their own health.

"Both the president and I are interested in strengthening and revitalizing rural America," Vilsack said. 
Outdoor recreation is big business and creates jobs, Vilsack added. 
"We want to make sure that rural America is actively promoting outdoor recreation," said Vilsack, adding that one-third of American children are obese or at risk of becoming obese. 
The grasslands and other conservation plantings also help sweep carbon from the air, a key to fighting global climate change, Vilsack said.

If landowners sign up to expand the Conservation Reserve Program by 4 percent, that could bring a 22 percent jump in the pheasant population, Vilsack told a packed banquet room. Congress has authorized up to 32 million acres in the program, which has lost hundreds of thousands of acres as contracts expired and farmers returned land to crops to take advantage of strong grain prices. 
Biologists consider the efforts announced by Vilsack critical to restoring the state’s pheasant population. They also could help water quality by paying farmers to plant grasslands that both provide nesting grounds and filter soil and contaminants from runoff.

Vilsack said the USDA is offering a new $50 million program to pay to improve access to private lands for hunting and fishing. Another $320 million program in Upper Mississippi River states, including Iowa, is designed to reduce pollution that leads to a so-called "dead zone" of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico. 
Those programs combined should make it more lucrative for farmers to choose conservation over corn on marginal land, Vilsack said. 
Also on Saturday, Vilsack signed an agreement to work with Pheasants Forever and other groups to help promote conservation programs.

The hunting angle is no small matter. 
Upland bird hunting is a $186 million-a-year business in Iowa, but it used to be about twice that when pheasants were more plentiful.