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Conrad: 'Best farm bill ever' for ND provides needed Devils Lake basin aid

DEVILS LAKE --- Flooded farm and ranch land in the Devils Lake Basin could be enrolled in federal Wetlands Reserve or Conservation Reserve programs, under a provision of the $290 billion 2008 farm bill.

DEVILS LAKE --- Flooded farm and ranch land in the Devils Lake Basin could be enrolled in federal Wetlands Reserve or Conservation Reserve programs, under a provision of the $290 billion 2008 farm bill.

As many as 200,000 acres in North Dakota -- most of them in the Devils Lake and Stump Lake basin -- would be eligible for enrollment, according to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who briefed Devils Lake community leaders today.

"I believe this is the best farm bill ever for North Dakota," Conrad said. "It is good for farmers, ranchers and Main Street business. And it is a win for taxpayers and consumers. This bill is especially good for the Devils Lake region. After years of hard work, we've finally got some relief for landowners devastated by the flooding of Devils Lake."

The farm bill will be delivered Tuesday to President Bush, who has threatened a veto. However, the bill appears to have enough votes in both houses of Congress to override a veto. The bill passed in the Senate, 81-15, and the House, 318-106.

Conrad told members of the Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce he hopes to have the issue settled this week.

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He said the legislation includes new enrollment opportunities in the Wetlands Reserve Program for land that was used for farming or ranching before it was swallowed up by the natural overflow of closed basin lakes like Devils Lake and Stump Lake.

Devils Lake has increased by more than 25 feet in elevation since 1993 and more than tripled in size. More than $500 million has been spent in flood mitigation efforts, including moving homes, businesses, roads, rail and power lines and building dikes.

Under the Wetlands Reserve Program, landowners agree to a 30-year wetlands reserve easement in exchange for 75 percent of the difference between the value of the land before and after the easement. The intention is to value flooded land as if it were not flooded, Conrad said.

In addition, Conrad noted that the preservation of the land is critical for wildlife habitat, especially waterfowl.

"The federal government is interested in the habitat," he said. "That land that's just under water -- you can't farm it, but it's great for wildlife. As the waters recede, the federal government would get a long-term easement on the land if the landowner chose to do that, and this would be a possibility for them to recover some value in exchange for a long-term easement."

As a second component, the farm bill expands eligibility in the Conservation Reserve Wetlands Pilot program.

The program allows producers who have been struggling with areas they previously had farmed, to enroll them in CRP and concentrate on farming their best land, according to Conrad. It also will allow the enrollment of the least productive and problematic farmland that is also some of the most productive wildlife habitat in the state.

Farmers will be able to enroll land in 40-acre tracts and receive $50 per acre annually. Currently, 17,000 acres are enrolled. The farm bill increases that acreage to 100,000 acres, with the possibility of doubling to 200,000 acres.

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"These people will have some income. They'll have some offset to the money that they have lost," Conrad said. "Some people have lost everything. Others have had a marked deterioration in productivity because they're on the edge of the water, and of course, that brings up salts and that creates a problem. So that land will be eligible for CRP for the first time."

Additional North Dakota highlights, Conrad said, include:

-- A standing disaster package to provide financial assistance to farmers and ranchers with losses from disaster. As opposed to previous ad hoc disaster programs, the standing disaster program is budgeted for and is paid for, he said.

"We've increased the safety net, but it only takes effect when if prices collapse," he said.

-- A new Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program, helping identify meat produced by North Dakota ranchers as a product of the United States.

-- Significant investment in biofuels to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

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Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1269; (800) 477-6572, ext. 269; or send e-mail to kbon-ham@gfherald.com .

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