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Great Lakes Article:

Proposal to improve water quality is admirable
St. Paul Pioneer Press
10/15/03

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal to expand efforts to protect waterways from agricultural runoff has much to recommend it. Targeted to address a key environmental priority, the plan extends a sensible strategy for reconciling public and private interests by paying landowners to use their land in ways that avoid environmental harms.

Pawlenty wants to extend Minnesota's Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a joint effort of federal, state and local governments. CREP purchases long-term easements from farmers who volunteer to stop plowing and planting sensitive acres along rivers or streams.

The first phase of the program in the state is credited with significantly improving water quality and environmental health along the Minnesota River. Now Pawlenty wants to retire more streamside acres across the state's farming regions.

The $226-million plan, if approved, would be funded primarily with federal dollars. Pawlenty will ask the Legislature to approve $46 million in bonding for the state's contribution. It is the kind of long-term investment with statewide importance that justifies state borrowing.

In one sense, these kinds of popular conservation programs in rural areas reflect the peculiar economics and politics of agriculture. Governments don't offer payments to most industries that pollute rivers or sensitive land. They issue regulations and impose fines for violations. What's more, much of the land eligible for CREP is relatively unproductive. If not for public crop subsidies, much of it might never have been farmed in the first place.

Yet the principle of compensation might improve cooperation in achieving many environmental goals. When the public wants property owners to take broad public interests into consideration in the use of their property, compensating them in some way for their trouble is the straightforward, free market solution, and it tends to inspire less resentment than restrictions and punishments.

As it happens, one criticism of the CREP program from some farm groups demonstrates that it is no mere giveaway. Landowners enrolling acreage must choose between a 35-year easement and a perpetual one. Farmers would prefer shorter-term arrangements, allowing them more flexibility to eventually replant acres if market conditions change. Taxpayers, though, are more likely to get their money's worth of environmental benefit from lasting retirement of cropland.

All in all, the Pawlenty plan is bold and worthy.

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