Help for ‘working lands’: Governors push conservation effort

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WASHINGTON-The National Governors Association is developing a new state-federal strategy that would provide flexible educational, financial, and technical assistance to farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners.

Realizing that public acquisition and regulation cannot by themselves meet all of the nation’s environmental challenges, the association is promoting working lands conservation as a critical component of an overall land preservation program.

“Every day valuable forest, crop and ranch land is increasingly threatened by sprawl,” said association chairman, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening. “There is a sense of urgency to act now to preserve our rural heritage, our natural resources and our quality of life.”

Under-funded.

While working lands conservation is not a new idea, the current system has languished because of under-funding, complex rules, and inadequate education, says Joel Hirschhorn, director of the natural resources policy studies division of the association’s Center for Best Practices.

“Some landowners don’t even know there’s available help,” Hirschhorn said. “What’s worse is that many of those who do apply are turned away because of insufficient funding.”

Hirschhorn said USDA spending on private lands conservation programs totaled about $2.5 billion in 1999 or, in adjusted dollars, less than half of the amount dedicated to working lands conservation 60 years ago.

Working lands make up about 70 percent or 1.4 billion acres of the nation’s landscape, according to the association, and a more effective conservation program would help combat suburban sprawl, protect wildlife habitat, and help reduce air and water pollution.

According to Environmental Defense, inadequate funding for federal conservation programs has prevented thousands of farmers and ranchers from receiving needed technical and financial assistance.

Approximately half the farmers and ranchers seeking basic technical help from their local conservation districts on methods to filter polluted runoff or combat global warming fail to get that help.

Wish list.

Under a coordinated, flexible and adequately funded program, the governors claim local conservation officials could offer landowners a menu of government programs to help with everything from preserving wildlife habitat to restoring wetlands.

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