Minnesota's grasslands squeezed by competing demands

ST. PAUL – Minnesota’s grasslands are being squeezed by competing demands and concerned organizations have united in an effort to plan for their future.

Grasslands filter water, store carbon and through the miracle of photosynthesis they produce food, said Dave White, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service on a March 29 conference call.

"Grasslands are critical," added Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "They’re critical for pheasants, they’re critical for ducks, they’re critical for songbirds. They’re critical for water quality and flood water retention."

White met with leaders of various farm and conservation organizations, and state and local government officials concerned about the loss of grassland on his recent visit to Minnesota. His goal was to find out how the federal government, through his agency, could help better carry out the goals Minnesotans expressed.

One way is by changing the requirements for enrolling in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP requirements have been changed so that land coming out of the CRP can be kept in grass and used as livestock pasture. EQIP cost share can be used for fencing and installation of


livestock watering facilities.

Grasslands are threatened by urban development and row-crop agriculture, White said. With high commodity prices land is coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program and is expected to go back into row crop production.

Grasslands in Minnesota are probably not that different than other areas of the Upper Midwest except that land ownership is different in Minnesota, with the overwhelming majority of grassland in Minnesota in private hands, said John Jaschke, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. Only a small fraction of the state’s grasslands are in publicly held, he said.

Minnesota has had CRP since 1985, Landwehr said, and 823,000 acres are expiring over the next five years. The state now has 1.3 million acres of CRP.

The conservation community is aware of the acres coming out of CRP and hopes to use Legacy dollars to protect crucial grasslands.

Legacy dollars from the constitutional amendment passed in 2008 are directed, in part, toward conservation efforts and purchase of sensitive land.

The Conservation Reserve Program has evolved over time and Landwehr said organizations are committed to working together to get the benefits they want.

"I think we recognize that we need to work collaborately and proactively to address this, so there are a number of things we can be doing," Landwehr said.


Some of those things include retaining land in CRP, using buffers to address water quality as well as provide habitat, targeting enrollment in conservation programs to the most erodible or sensitive land and perhaps moving land into another program.

A lesser known program available to grasslands is the Grassland Reserve Program. This voluntary program emphasizes support for grazing operations, plant and animal biodiversity and grasslands

under the threat of conversion.

Land enrolled in CRP that is within a year of expiration may be signed up for the Grassland Reserve Program. Sign up is continuous, however there is an April 27 ranking and scoring date for this year’s applications. Minnesota has about $409,882 for this program this year and NRCS will accept both easements and rental agreement applications.

Haying of lands enrolled in the Grassland Reserve Program may be allowed subject to certain restrictions.

Landwehr understands that grass on the landscape is not viewed as an asset if it is not generating money. He wants to look at how grazing can be viewed as a management tool and local economic engine.

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