Future of Grasslands Impacted by Current Farm Bill

Colorado’s rolling plains are known for miles and miles of buffalo grass, cactus and other native vegetation that embodies the image of the West. But some farm policy has encouraged landowners to plow up the plains and convert that land into fields. The new Farm Bill, now passing through legislative branches, is making an effort to adjust the effects that some policies have on grassland preservation.

But grasslands aren’t under pressure from just farm policy; most states in the West, where the majority of grasslands stretch across the nation, have become home to millions of people who flock there for jobs, open space and recreation.

"North American grasslands have probably been altered more by human impacts than any other ecosystem on the continent," said Andy Seidl, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension public policy specialist.

"The impacts come in varied forms, from introduction of weeds that take over native grass to urban sprawl, improper grazing management and conversion to crops. Since 1850, about half of the 883 million acres of native grasslands west of the Mississippi were converted to cropland or land cover other than native grasses."

Seidl co-authored a report this fall about Farm Bill legislation that impacts grasslands. Seidl and co-authors Neal Wilkins, Texas wildlife specialist; Richard Conner Texas Agricultural Experiment Station economist, both at Texas A&M; and Larry Van Tassell, University of Idaho agricultural economist, found that the federal government could protect and nurture grasslands by including landowners in incentive programs, possibly through a grassland reserve program, or by revising policies that may provide incentives to convert grassland to more intensive uses.

The group’s suggestions would take several impacts into account before setting government policy that affects natural resources. Often, grassland is converted to a field because of a government payment program for a commodity. It’s often more profitable for a farmer to plow up grassland than to not plow. Expanded preservation incentives, for example, might give landowners an affordable option to plowing up native vegetation.

Why is this cause for concern? Seidl explains that grasslands cover a vast area of the nation and are an important link in the quality of life in the United States. Grassland is valued for wildlife habitat, open space, food production and recreation. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 1996 more than 27 million people in states west of the Mississippi River fished, hunted and watched wildlife, spending $37 billion on recreation.

Grasslands also play an important role in soil conservation and water quality. The quality of water runoff from rain, for example, largely depends on how the water is filtered by groundcover. Grasslands prevent soil erosion, which pollutes water and steals fertile topsoil, and increase sedimentation and dissolve many solids, nutrients and pesticides before water reaches human supplies.

Grasslands directly impact human food supplies and quality, adds Seidl. The main source of food for some livestock is grassland. In fact, grassland makes up 95 percent of the land used to raise cattle in the western states.

And it’s clear that people value grassland for purely aesthetic reasons. Land prices bordering open space are 7 percent to 32 percent higher than lands not bordering open space.

This round of farm legislation has passed in the House and discussions are underway in the Senate. However, national security issues may delay those discussions, and the bill may not reach President Bush until sometime in early 2002.

For a complete copy of the report by Seidl, Conner, Wilkins and Van Tassell, visit landinfo.tamu.edu.