TOM LUTEY The Billings Gazette BILLINGS
Chuck Maki was facing high feed prices and drought in May when the federal government said it would allow him, in late summer, to graze cattle on land he'd previously been paid to set aside for conservation. The offer was the oasis Maki and hundreds of other dryland Montana farmers were looking for. It meant that if they could find enough water and grass to keep their livestock going through June and July, there'd be conservation land to turn their stock onto in August. The oasis turned out to be a mirage. Maki, of Columbus, is now scrambling to the find pasture land for his black Angus. The promise of grazing on his conservation land evaporated after a federal judge ruled that by maki n g t h e o f f e r, t h e U.S. Department of Agriculture had ignored the consequences of turning cattle loose on land dedicated to bird habitat and soil conservation. Maki and others feel like they've had the rug ripped out from under them. "I'm either going to have to find pasture to rent, or start liquidating livestock," Maki said. "I can maybe squeeze some grass out of another pasture I have, but then that's it." The pasture he'd hoped to graze is under contract with the Conservation Reserve Program. Maki's father signed up for the program in the 1980s, as did Maki later. Since 1985, CRP has been paying farmers to set aside environmentally sensitive land 10 years at a time. CRP payouts vary across the county, but where Maki lives they're about $37 an acre, or about 15 percent of what the land might gross in wheat profits this year. CRP land is usually of the highly erodible variety and doesn't hold up well to crops or annual grazing. Farmers agree to secure the soil with grass, trees or shrubs and then for the most part leave it alone, which makes it prime habitat for birds and other wildlife. This year the USDA moved to open 24 million acres of CRP to grazing and haying. The act, dubbed the "critical-feed initiative" by the USDA, was supposed to be a one-time deal needed to generate 18 million tons of forage and hay for farmers pinched by bad weather and skyrocketing prices for feed, particularly corn, which had doubled partly because of an expanding ethanol industry. The estimated worth of the grass being released nationally for haying and grazing was $1.2 billion. And farmers who took the USDA up on its offer were assured they wouldn't face CRP payment penalties for putting their land back into production, which was a first. For years, farmers in severely drought-stricken areas had been allowed to tap CRP property under the "emergency haying and grazing" program, and using the land came with a 25 percent reduction in CRP payments. Farmers in five Montana counties along the North Dakota border currently qualify for the program. Four other counties have been approved for emergency grazing and are waiting for permission to hay the land. Wildlife advocates didn't balk at the emergency haying and grazing program, but when they learned of the critical-feed initiative they sued the USDA for rolling out the program without considering the environmental consequences or consulting other government branches. "This program came from out of nowhere. It was absolutely brand new. There was no opportunity for another agency to comment on it. It was just done," said Tom France, regional director of the National Wildlife Foundation's Northern Rockies Resource Center. France, of Missoula, said he understands the hard spot created by the lawsuit, which resulted in a late-July restraining order stopping the program. The National Wildlife Federation was a lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. The Conservation Reserve Program is voluntary, however. Farmers signing 10-year CRP contracts know what they're agreeing to, get paid for it and should be able to stick with it, he said. The plaintiffs suing the USDA agreed to allow all critical-feed initiative participants who filled out their paperwork by July 8 or who could prove intent they planned to participate, to hay or graze without violating the restraining order. That deadline worked well for farmers in other parts of the country, whose land became available as birds on their CRP land hatched chicks and moved on. In parts of the south, birds had moved on and farmers were able to move stock onto CRP land in June. But in the Northern Rockies, birds don't leave the nest until August and few farmers had even thought about applying for the criticalfeed program before July 8. "I think very few people had actually applied. In fact, our records are showing there are probably 60 or 70 producers who actually had approved applications by that date," said Randy Johnson, state director of the USDA's Farm Service Agency. In Montana, where more than 3 million acres and 7,000 farms are enrolled in CRP, hundreds of farmers, if not more than a thousand, likely missed out, Johnson said. Maki said he was at his local Farm Service Agency office in June on other business and asked if he needed to fill out the paperwork and pay the $75 application fee then. The agent told him there was no hurry. Now if he's to qualify, Maki will have to show intent to participate, either because he invested $4,500 in wire, gas and other supplies preparing the land for his livestock, or pointing to some other evidence that he planned to participate. Local Farm Service agents exercise some judgment in deciding who to approve, Johnson said. "I don't have $4,500 to spend," Maki said. "If I had it, I would have spent it on grass."