Proposal to improve water quality
St. Paul Pioneer Press
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
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.