The NYT reports what many of us have been predicting:
Thousands of farmers are taking their fields out of the government’s biggest conservation program, which pays them not to cultivate. They are spurning guaranteed annual payments for a chance to cash in on the boom in wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops. Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
Environmental and hunting groups are warning that years of progress could soon be lost, particularly with the native prairie in the Upper Midwest. But a broad coalition of baking, poultry, snack food, ethanol and livestock groups say bigger harvests are a more important priority than habitats for waterfowl and other wildlife. They want the government to ease restrictions on the preserved land, which would encourage many more farmers to think beyond conservation. . . .
Last fall, when five million acres in Conservation Reserve came up for renewal, only half of them were re-entered. While the program has gained some high-priority land in the last few months, in part from an initiative to restore bobwhite quail habitats, the net loss is still more than two million acres.
That is just the beginning, warns Ducks Unlimited, a politically potent organization with more than half a million members in the United States. Ducks Unlimited is concerned about the three-quarters of a million acres of grassland that were removed from the program last year in the so-called duck factory in the Upper Midwest.
“We foresee a dramatic reduction,” said Mr. Ringelman, a conservation director for the association.
Incentive programs to encourage for voluntary conservation on private land have been a bargain, particularly when compared to various regulatory and non-regulatory alternatives. (A point I discuss in the latter sections of this paper.) It doesn't take much to convince many landowners to make small alterations in their land practices for the benefit of wildlife. Yet with the ethanol driven rise in commodity prices, many farmers now find that the opportunity costs of dong the green thing are too high. So they put more of their land under plow, and wildlife suffers as a result.