Limit Enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program

The Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is intended to promote soil conservation, improve water quality, and protect wildlife habitat by removing land from active agricultural production. Landowners sign contracts with the Department of Agriculture to keep land out of production--usually for 10 to 15 years; in exchange, the department provides annual payments and cost-sharing grants to establish appropriate conservation practices on land enrolled in the program. Acreage may be added to the CRP through general enrollments, which are held periodically for larger tracts of land, or through continuous enrollments, which are available at any time during the year for smaller tracts of land. An example of an effective type of acreage for those purposes is conservation buffers--narrow strips of land that are maintained in permanent vegetation and are designed to intercept pollutants, reduce erosion, and provide other environmental benefits. Acreage is accepted into the CRP on the basis of an evaluation of the costs and potential environmental benefits of a landowner's plan for the land. Under current law, total enrollment is capped at 32 million acres, and about 31 million acres are enrolled. The Department of Agriculture spends about $2.4 billion per year on the CRP.

Prohibiting new general enrollments (including reenrollments), beginning in 2012, would reduce spending by $3 billion over the 2012-2016 period, the Congressional Budget Office estimates, and by about $9 billion over the 2012-2021 period. Under this approach, the amount of land enrolled in the CRP would drop significantly, to 11.9 million acres by 2021. Although there is widespread agreement about the need to take some environmentally sensitive land out of production, an advantage of scaling back the CRP is that the land could become available for other uses that would provide greater environmental benefits. Another advantage of limiting the program could be that retiring less cropland in a given area might enhance economic activity (for example, by increasing the demand for seed, fertilizer, and other farm supplies), thus helping rural communities. Also, reducing CRP enrollment could free more land to produce crops and biomass needed for renewable energy products.

A disadvantage of scaling back the CRP could be that the Department of Agriculture's existing plan to accept only the most environmentally sensitive land in future enrollments might turn out to be a cost-effective way to protect fragile lands. Studies have indicated that the CRP yields high returns--in enhanced wildlife habitat, improved water quality, and reduced soil erosion--for every dollar it spends.