Since retiring, I spend more and more time out walking with my camera in hand, exploring my surroundings, mostly on the road I live on and I have come to appreciate the diversity and amount of life in areas like bar ditches and sloughs, that most people wouldn’t look twice at, nor think twice about clearing. Life is there and lots of it. I recently completed Texas Master Naturalist training to learn more about the intricacies of nature and I continue to be amazed, especially at what goes on in the margins. One of my great pleasures is learning without being taught but rather, by simply observing. For my efforts I have gotten hundreds of images of all types of flora and fauna.
I have noticed that the more I seek out wildlife, the less of it there is to be found. I can smell the reason as the smoke from the burning of hundreds of bulldozed trees wafts through the air here. As more land becomes suburban sprawl, it drives farmers to clear more land, much of it marginal or it would have already been tilled, most of which would be better off it were left alone. Especially for wildlife and, in the grand scheme of things, for us as well.
There is a lot of slash and burn land clearing going on, much of which, I’m pretty sure, is in violation of a number of federal laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. Also, clearing land at this time of year, while birds are beginning to nest, is in violation of the Migratory Bird Act. While not strictly enforced, they are still the law of the land. Clearing land is just one of those things that’s ingrained in our culture, like those old photos of belching smokestacks that were a symbol of progress a long time ago. Before we knew better. Much of the land being cleared around here is wetland, which is a valuable resource for migrating shorebirds, and endangered species such as Timber rattlesnakes (sorry but, yes, they’re highly endangered, much of it due to them being a delicacy for the wild hogs that are now everywhere), and any number of Warblers and plants like native Texas orchids as well as those animals close to the edge such as Bald Eagles and Pileated woodpeckers
I’m not out to demonize farmers either. I’m from farm country with all of my relatives except my father, being farmers. Farming has simply become more efficient. From a wildlife standpoint however, it is ruthless. Conservation efforts need to keep up.
I grew up hunting quail, pheasant and rabbits in woods and harvested cornfields. There were woods and fencerows where these animals could raise their young. Almost all of that is gone now. In the upper Great Plains, they’re plowing up ground that hasn’t been disturbed since the Ice Age to plant corn and soybeans. If you know anything about what created the Dust Bowl, you know that it was mostly the plow. Once you break up those ancient root systems that have been in operation for centuries, there’s no going back.
Most of the problem is that of those involved, both in and out of government, not being able to step back and take a rational look at what’s needed to make a sustainable, rather than a take-no-prisoners system of agriculture.
We have had programs in place such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP 1985) that paid farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from crop production to establish plant cover to prevent soil erosion and water pollution. It was one of the most successful government conservation programs ever. It brought back stable grasslands and endangered birds. The problem was that it didn’t keep pace with the prices of corn and soybeans. Farmers could make more money by plowing them for crops, even if the land was marginal. If the crop failed, the farmer is, more often than not, covered by federal crop insurance. Crop insurance, by incentivising farmers to till up every square inch of land no matter how marginal, is a big reason that we’re losing our native grasslands and marshes.
Engaging in an activity that uses more of the resources it’s intended to create than it produces is pure idiocy by any standard and that’s precisely what the growing of corn for ethanol is. To destroy land and wildlife for that simply defies logic.
There are some rather painless solutions here if we think ahead instead of chasing a fast buck. First, the CRP should be ramped up to keep up with commodity prices to make it worthwhile for farmers to leave more land undisturbed. A farmer shouldn’t be punished for doing the right thing nor should they be taxpayer subsidized by allowing them to write off the expense of clearing land for crops. Second, we think ahead instead of chasing a fast buck.
Considering all of the corporate welfare schemes our government engages in, like foreign aid to nations of people who want to kill us, the Conservation Reserve Program is a gem that can go a long way in insuring a healthy future for America. Ramp it up and fund it well. We’re running out of space and time.