Vanishing Prairies and Vanishing Protections

The “Protect our Prairies Act,” offered by Representatives Noem and Walz aims to protect our rapidly disappearing prairies. This protection is urgently needed because grassland loss rates of 10% to 15% recorded in key areas of the prairie pothole region from 2008 to 2011 imply a loss of 50% to 75% of this critical resource within 15 years. Unfortunately, proposed protections offer only a small fraction of protections provided in past farm legislation even though today’s need is vastly greater.

The amendment works by denying crop insurance and other subsidies for five years to farmers that plow up grasslands. Unfortunately, Economic Research Service (ERS) economists’ most recent estimate suggests that denying crop insurance and other program subsidies for five years could reduce grassland conversions in the Northern Plains only as much as 9% compared to conversions that would otherwise occur. Since the Protect our Prairies Act only reduces these crop insurance subsidies by half, and only for four years, reductions in the rate of prairie loss are likely to be less than 4%. This is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step.

A more aggressive approach would deny federal subsidies on sodbusted land permanently, as was the case in farm legislation prior to 2008. Doing so offers double the economic sanction compared to the version of sodsaver analyzed by ERS, and four times the sanction in “Protect our Prairies.” We advance from achieving “the less than 9% reduction” in grassland conversion for the ERS option, to achieving less than 18% reduction in the grassland loss.

According to ERS, high crop prices have become the major driver regarding loss of prairie, even though government subsidies to farmers in the region have greatly increased. Government payments fell to 20% of net farm income, while an earlier study found these payments were 53.7% of net farm income in the South Dakota of 1996-2001. Prices of major crops in the region have tripled.

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Clayton Ogg is the Director, Conservation Economics & Finance for Defenders of Wildlife. Clay directs some of Defenders’ work on incentives to enhance ecosystems and prevent harm. This includes identifying incentive programs that currently work well as well as analysis of ways to improve agriculture programs and other programs to achieve measurable ecosystem outcomes.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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