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Great Lakes Article:

Tug of war-Pawlenty's right on watersheds
Minneapolis Star Tribune
12/17/03


Gov. Tim Pawlenty is catching flak from the state's major farm organizations over a splendid proposal to protect soil and water in three of Minnesota's important watersheds. While the farmers deserve a fair hearing -- their participation in the program will be crucial -- state and federal regulators should not let their objections plow the idea under.

Pawlenty wants to expand on a federal-state collaboration known as the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, which pays farmers to idle and protect land along polluted waterways. It started on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay in the mid-1990s and came to the Minnesota River under Gov. Arne Carlson in 1997. Pawlenty would expand it to 100,000 acres of fragile land alongside streams and waterways that feed the Red River in northwestern Minnesota, the Missouri and Des Moines watershed in southwestern Minnesota and the lower Mississippi in the state's southeastern corner.

The dispute is whether farmers must idle their land indefinitely in exchange for state and federal payments, as the governor proposes, or merely sell temporary easements.

Farmers have an understandable reluctance to sell long-term or permanent easements. You never know when a marginal piece of farmland might become profitable again, and the federal government's original Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) used 10-year easements.

Nevertheless, we think Pawlenty holds the high ground here. In a time of limited state and federal resources, taxpayers should not have to pay more than once to protect environmentally sensitive land. And unlike CRP, the new program targets parcels that are especially vulnerable -- with erodible soil or proximity to streams -- that deserve to be taken out of production permanently. The administration wants to offer options that might include permanent or 35-year easements.

It's true that the program won't work if farmers refuse to enroll. But after some initial objections from landowners, Gov. Carlson had little trouble subscribing enough farmers in 1997, and the program produced startling improvements in water quality in the Minnesota River.

Federal ag officials, who must approve Pawlenty's version of the program, should not let farmers block round two.

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