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Congress Moving to Save Nation’s Eroding Topsoil

July 12, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The year 1985 already is shaping up as one conservationists will long remember - the year Congress took serious aim at the erosion problem that washes away billions of tons a year of precious topsoil.

Action this week in the House and Senate agriculture committees, coupled with recent Reagan administration endorsement of a new land-retirement program, virtually assures that new farm legislation will contain the toughest anti-erosion laws in decades.

″It’s a real high-water mark,″ said Maureen Hinkle, Washington lobbyist for the National Audubon Society. ″It’s the first time they have taken the appropriate steps to protect the natural resource″ of farmland.

Perhaps the boldest action came Thursday in the Senate Agriculture Committee, where an already tough ″sodbuster″ provision in the emerging farm bill was made even tougher by broadening it to an unprecedented degree.

The sodbuster language denies farm-program benefits - everything from direct subsidies to price-support loans to disaster relief - to farmers who break out previously unplowed fragile ground to plant crops.

As originally proposed, the bill would have denied such benefits to farmers who plowed up delicate acreage after the legislation was passed. Land already in cultivation, even if erodible, would have been exempted.

But on a motion by Sen. David Boren, D-Okla., the panel moved to do away with all such exemptions in 1988, or later for land whose erosion potential has not been formally determined by the Soil Conservation Service by that date. A farmer still could avoid losing federal subsidies if he tilled the delicate acreage under an approved conservation plan designed to prevent erosion.

Peter C. Myers, assistant secretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment, called the panel’s move ″historic″ and ″a very big, big step.″ But he conceded the matter will be controversial.

″As a farmer, I don’t like anybody to tell me how to manage my land,″ Myers said. ″But as a soil conservationist, I don’t think farmers should farm erodible land.″

The House Agriculture Committee had passed its own version of tough sodbuster legislation earlier in the week, although it kept in a clause exempting currently tilled delicate land from the penalties.

In addition, the House panel approved a new program estimated to cost upwards of $11 billion over the next 10 years to pay farmers to idle their most delicate land and plant it in trees or grass for at least a decade.

The Senate appeared poised to call for a similar conservation reserve program, and Agriculture Secretary John Block already has endorsed setting aside at least 20 million acres of delicate cropland.

″Things are looking good for conservation,″ said Daniel Weiss, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, which has made soil erosion one of its major legislative priorities this year.

Hinkle said that while soil conservation measures are on track, she still expects opposition to be felt from some farmers who have philosophical objections to government intervention in their land-management practices.

Some of that concern also was expressed by Sen. John Melcher, D-Mont., who said the added teeth in the sodbuster provisions could surprise farmers now planting on rolling farmland that could fall under the definition of ″erodible.″

″This thing has never been discussed with farmers. They are in the dark about what is highly erodible,″ Melcher said.

But Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, R-Minn., noted that much of the erodible land now being farmed was put into production because federal programs rewarded producers who expanded their acreage bases by giving them higher subsidies.

″It’s important to me that we do not continue to pay people who plow up highly erodible land,″ Boschwitz said. He and other supporters of the provision noted that cutting back cultivated acreage also could help efforts to cut back surplus production, which has depressed commodity prices.

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