Do Conservation Practices and Programs Benefit the Intended Resource Concern?

Article excerpt

Many conservation programs under the 2002 Farm Act address resource concerns such as water quality and aquatic communities in streams. Analyzing two such programs, simulated changes in agricultural practices decreased field-edge sediment losses by 25-31% in two geophysically distinct Minnesota watersheds. However, while in-stream sediment concentrations and lethal fisheries events decreased significantly in one watershed, there was no discernable improvement for the fisheries in the other, despite potentially spending over $ 100,000 annually in conservation payments. These results highlight the importance of performance-based conservation payments targeted to genuine resource concerns in watersheds and the value of integrated bioeconomic modeling of conservation programs.

Key Words: Agricultural Drainage and Pesticide Transport (AD APT), Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Conservation Security Program (CSP), fisheries, green payments, water quality

Over the last 70 years, the federal government has worked with agricultural producers and land owners to conserve natural resources such as soil, mitigate negative environmental externalities like water pollution, maintain net farm income at some acceptable level, and keep budgetary outlays within some fiscally responsible limit. Programs that encourage producers to use crop residue management (conservation tillage) practices, or programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that promote the retirement of highly erodible lands, have been somewhat successful at reducing soil losses (Conservation Tillage Information Center, 2003; Ribaudo, Osborn, and Konyar, 1994).

Despite such efforts, agricultural production activities remain one of the primary reasons for water quality impairment or nonattainment of designated uses (fishable, swimable, or drinkable) for riverine systems (60%), and to a lesser extent lakes (30%), estuaries (15%), and ocean shoreline areas (15%) in this country (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2000). Given this situation, one might wonder if conservation programs designed to reduce soil loss effectively protect water quality in general, and more specifically, fisheries populations in freshwater environments.

Recently, under the Conservation Title of the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act (FSRIA) (the 2002 Farm Act), a new conservation initiative for working lands was created. The Conservation Security Program (CSP) is a performancebased program which rewards farmers with "green payments" for conservation practices or structures that address environmental or natural resource concerns such as soil loss, water quality, and fisheries and wildlife habitat. The CSP was designed to "reward the best and motivate the rest" (7 CFR Part 1470, p. 7720).

In this study, we examine how well the CSP and the CRP address water quality and freshwater fisheries concerns in two different watersheds in Minnesota, and estimate how such programs affect producer income and how much they cost the government. The timely analysis presented in this research demonstrates that if programs like CSP are to be successful, they may need to be targeted more toward the actual resource concern of interest to the people in a given watershed. For example, if the resource concern is fisheries and the conservation practices being funded by this program do not result in a measurable improvement in this resource, then the program is not very effective or economically efficient. Another contribution of this research is its description and demonstration of the usefulness of tools like integrated bioeconomic models for analyzing complex biophysical processes and the policies designed to influence them.

For an ex ante analysis of how cost-effective conservation programs might be, or to determine how successfully such programs might address the environmental concerns for which they were designed, an integrated bioeconomic model is crucial (Wu et al, 2004). …