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OUR OPINION: Protecting local prairie enriches us all

The new public-private partnership to conserve Grand Forks County's dwindling prairie is hugely welcome.

And it's arriving just in the nick of time.

When the new Farm Bill passes Congress, that also will be welcome, at least from the standpoint of North Dakota and Minnesota's economies. But that bill seems likely to be tough on conservation.

The Senate and House versions of the Farm Bill both move toward crop insurance and away from direct subsidies as the preferred way to keep farming predictable and secure.

But so far, the crop insurance proposals lack any requirement that farmers meet conservation restrictions. So, as National Public Radio reports, "critics say crop insurance has reduced the risk of farming so much that farmers are now incentivized to farm on marginal lands, such as wetlands or lands with less than optimal soil."

As Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group told NPR, "When the government is guaranteeing you [a farmer] 85 percent of your income, it suddenly makes a whole lot more sense to farm in places that might flood or have low soil moisture, which might not have been practical to farm if you simply had your own skin in the game.

"Since 2008, farmers have plowed under more than 23 million acres of wetlands -- an area the size of Indiana," Faber continued.

The trend makes this statement by local birding expert Dave Lambeth all the more relevant: "I think we're all looking at grasslands these days to see what can be done to keep them in grass.

"Landowners need financial incentives to keep it in grass."

Lambeth was talking to Herald staff writer Brad Dokken about the new public-private partnership and what it might mean to Grand Forks' remaining prairie. The saline prairie is the very definition of marginal farmland. There's a reason why the biggest parcel is called "Alkali Flats," and why much of the prairie still hasn't been farmed in this, a valley of some of the most intensively farmed land on Earth.

But poor soils haven't spared marginal lands in other regions. And while the Grand Forks County land might be ill-suited for farming, it's ideally suited for supporting prairie grasses, flowers and wildlife.

Among its other functions, the prairie is home to the western meadowlark, North Dakota's state bird, Lambeth noted.

It's a landscape of beauty and renewal. And it will be lost if the grass is turned under the plow.

The new partnership includes such premier organizations as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Audubon Dakota, the Grand Forks County Prairie Project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, UND and the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, Bakken reported.

Here's hoping they find the "partnerships and co-operation all around" that Lambeth correctly declared they'll need.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald