Conservation, except when it's not

South Dakota State Roundup

Published November 1, 2007  | November 2007 issue

The federal Conservation Reserve Program is failing to save native grasslands from conversion to cropland, particularly in South Dakota, according to a report this fall by the Government Accountability Office. It noted that privately owned grassland dropped by almost 25 million acres nationwide between 1982 and 2003. While some conversions are attributable to development and other land uses, the leading type of conversion has been to cropland.

Northern Plains states, including South Dakota, saw some of the heaviest losses. Though data on converted grasslands were unavailable for recent years, from 1982 to 1997, more than 1.8 million acres of grassland in South Dakota were converted to cropland. During the same period, 1.69 million acres of state cropland were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

The study also looked at 2005 and 2006 conversion rates of grassland that had no history of cropping. Conversion totaled more than 100,000 acres in South Dakota—five to six times more than in North Dakota or Montana.

The kicker: Conversions of grassland with no cropping history added disproportionately to government costs for crop insurance. Government crop insurance payments in South Dakota were the highest in areas of highest conversion. Net crop insurance payments in 16 high-conversion counties were almost twice as high per acre as in the rest of the state, mostly because conversions often took place in drought-prone areas.

Ronald A. Wirtz