Pine straw proposal would reverse progress for wildlife on southern CRP

Pine straw proposal would reverse progress for wildlife on southern CRP

A proposal being considered at the highest levels of the USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) to allow raking of pine straw for private economic gain on up to 1,780,000 acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). If adopted, the proposal would negatively impact wildlife, taxpayers and the program itself, reports the Wildlife Management Institute.

CRP pine plantations-most are loblolly pines that have been under contract nearly 20 years-long have been criticized for providing negligible wildlife habitat. In recent years, policy improvements have stimulated incremental gains in habitat values on these acres by promoting thinning followed by repeated prescribed fire, with the objective of fostering robust native herbaceous ground cover for grassland birds of conservation concern. Furthermore, longleaf pines-more compatible with habitat objectives than loblolly pines-are receiving greater priority and emphasis in new CRP contracts across the Deep South.

Pine straw for landscaping, especially from longleaf pines, has become a valuable, renewable commodity, worth $200 or more per acre per year to pine forest owners. Optimal conditions for producing and harvesting pine straw include a closed-canopy pine stand, with little or no ground cover or woody debris to interfere with raking. The harvesting process typically rakes and removes all the current year's needles, leaving clean ground with little understory vegetation. In a letter to FSA opposing the practice, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies contends that "pine straw raking, while providing additional revenue to producers for an already economically lucrative enrollment, negates many of the ecosystem benefits that otherwise could be provided through the CRP pine practices."

Approval of pine straw harvesting would provide a strong disincentive against wildlife habitat on CRP pine contracts, by discouraging thinning of dense stands and eliminating prescribed fires, thus eliminating or preventing herbaceous habitat. The consequences of this disincentive would contradict CRP's statutory goal of wildlife habitat. Raking on CRP longleaf pine contracts also would be inconsistent with the wildlife habitat and ecological purposes of the Longleaf Pine Conservation Priority Area as well as the new CP36 Longleaf Pine Initiative. Furthermore, it would conflict with the Managers' Report Language of the 2002 Farm Bill, which urged the Ag Secretary to support the habitat objectives of the "Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative."

Despite objections from conservationists, proponents continue to seek approval at the highest levels of FSA and apparently even in Congress, through the 2007 Farm Bill. Conservationists contend that acres enrolled in CRP and receiving rental payments from taxpayers should be managed for optimum conservation objectives and societal benefits, as originally intended. (dfm)

July 08, 2007