Wildlife managers say American hunters are about to experience one of the greatest seasons of recent times, because of bumper crops of waterfowl and upland birds.

They also say the major reason for that production – the Conservation Reserve Program – may be just weeks away from a serious cut.

That’s because Chuck Connor, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has said his agency is seriously considering allowing farmers to take early exits from CRP contracts. The move is being contemplated as a way of calming growing concerns among ranchers that the drive for more corn-based ethanol production may push feed prices too high.

Does the nation value wildlife and environmental protection more than ethanol and meat producers?

By now most wildlife enthusiasts are familiar with the issue. Incorporated into the farm bill more than 20 years ago, CRP pays farmers not to cultivate highly erodable acres. By 2000, more than 30 million acres had been enrolled at an annual cost of about $1.6 billion.

That price is one of the great bargains in American government. By all accounts, CRP has been the single most successful conservation program in the nation’s history as well as becoming a reliable source of income for farmers.

Everyone in conservation loved CRP, but some in that community pointed out its weakness: Everything was tied to commodity prices. CRP was not a stand-alone environmental bill, but a part of a larger farm bill whose major aim was helping crop and livestock producers. If the value of an acre of corn, wheat or hay exceeded the value of CRP payments, landowners would desert the program, and politicians would not stand in their way.

That nightmare scenario began coming into focus last year.

It started when President Bush announced the goal of having 15 percent of domestic gasoline consumption converted to ethanol in 10 years. But this “green” move would have brown consequences for wildlife. By the end of the year, corn prices had gone from $2 to $4 a bushel, and by this spring, the nation had planted 90 million acres in corn – the most since World War II.

By mid-summer, wildlife advocates thought they had been successful in beating back attempts by the ethanol lobby to cut CRP, when a new threat emerged. Livestock producers, now competing with ethanol for feed corn, began pressing USDA to release millions of acres from CRP to keep their profits from dropping because of rising feed costs.

Now, wildlife and sportsmen find themselves caught in the political crossfire.

On one side are budget hawks, who want to reduce spending, and livestock producers that want more corn. On the other side are those in the farming community who fear corn prices, already leveling off, could fall more if the USDA releases millions of CRP acres.

Keith Bolin, president of the American Corn Growers Association, became a hero among conservationists recently by coming out against CRP releases. He pointed to a University of Tennessee study that showed CRP payments are less than the total subsidies farmers could qualify for if lands were put back into production. He also pointed out that most CRP land would do little to increase corn production as these, the highly erodable soils, are unsuitable for water-hungry corn.

Conner has said he’ll make a decision in the next few weeks, about the time hunters take the field to reap the record bounty produced in large measure by 30 million acres of CRP.

By then we’ll know, again, how wildlife and environmental protection stack up.

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