January 8, 2014

How crop insurance affects our landscapes

Every-day decisions on farmland are a major driver of the state of the landscapes that we see around us.  Those landscapes affect the people who live on them, as well as the wildlife, water, and other natural resources supported by the landscapes.

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the idea that economics drive landscape decisions--the decisions made on a daily or annual basis by landowners who want to do the right thing for their families.

Here's a 4-minute video, produced by the World Wildlife Fund, which explains--using artwork with stick figures and easy economics---how federal crop insurance has a big effect on the decision to ranch cattle or plant crops.  On marginal lands, this has become a major part of the decision-making process.  Grass is disappearing at huge rates, and Nebraska (my home state) leads the nation in conversion of grass to crops.

And, people still wonder why pheasants, ducks, and prairie-chickens are not as common in Nebraska.

Watch the video.  Watch the current debates in Congress about the Farm Bill.  And, encourage your representatives in Congress to support our landscapes and support our farm families with a Farm Bill that makes sense.  At the moment, as the video suggests, your tax dollars are paying to make grasslands disappear.

December 30, 2013

Banks, corporations, and the Nebraska landscape

A person can easily get down in the dumps about wildlife in the Great Plains in the face of seemingly uncontrollable economic forces.   Been there, done that.  Wrote about it several times: here, here, and here.  I talked about it here.

So, it was with astounding refreshment that I watched the ENTIRE 36 minutes of the embedded video, below.  The Nebraska Farmers Union invited a renowned trial lawyer, David Domina, to speak about the state of agriculture in Nebraska during the NFU's 100th Annual Convention in December of 2013.  Next year, I will be in the audience. 

Domina suggests that ag is sexy and strong for only a segment of agriculture, at present.  He presents a compelling review of the forces that are behind every farmer's set of decisions--what crops to plant, where and when to sell, what chemicals to use, and how to manage the crop.  These are decisions that affect our Rural Future.

The Farmers Union thought his message was important for farmers.  I'll suggest it is equally important for wildlife biologists who care about private lands.  And, Domina lists some real solutions.  Spoiler alert: they don't include planting irrigation 'corners' to sorghum to try to prop up pheasants.  He's talking changes to banks and the way we treat corporations in the US.  Big changes. 

Watch the video.  Think about landscapes as he talks.  Tell me it doesn't make sense.  I dare you.

I highlight some of the segments I really enjoyed below the video.

00:31  "The state of Nebraska agriculture appears, on its face, to be extraordinarily strong.  In the last five years, many Nebraska farmers have seen their personal net worths increase in a way that they never increased in the history of this state."

19:35  "Farmers have enjoyed a tremendous run, and gotten great publicity about it.  Others in rural communities have not done so well and are struggling.  Farmers have become softer because good times make us soft...."

20:40  "...market concentration is an enormous problem.  Eight-five percent of the cattle slaughtered in the US by 3 slaughter houses--75%, nearly, of the hogs.  Seventy percent of the seed controlled by 4 companies and the traits--nearly 100%, nearly, by one."

21:45 "We cannot demean ourselves and dignify the corporations that enjoy that consolidation by treating them as our perfect and uniform legal equals.  We are citizens of the United states and we have the rights to vote.  We have the right to due process of the law.  We have the guarantees of the constitution, and we create corporations.  They are not citizens.  Unless we deal with that problem, the transitory prosperity of the Nebraska farmer will be transitory."

34:15  "That is the challenge of Nebraska agriculture.  No matter how much your land has inflated, no matter how good it feels to think about your net worth in light of that increase in price, no matter how much you enjoyed $7 corn and long to have it back--and think it may come back...as long as you are a price taker, and subject to manipulation, you have to defeat that manipulator by insisting on a vibrant market.  And, that market begins with a quality financial institution system."

November 30, 2013

How 'public' is the Public Trust Doctrine?

Biologists with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission take
measurements from a male mallard duck captured in the
Nebraska Sandhills.  Ballot initiatives take decision-making
on wildlife issues away from biologists who work with
wildlife and habitat on a daily basis.  Photo by Larkin Powell.
One of the fundamental legal principles used to guide the management of wildlife in the United States is the "Public Trust Doctrine".  The Doctrine is not a document.  The Doctrine is not a set of rules.  Instead, the Doctrine is an accumulation of legal decisions, made over the years.  If you take a series of Supreme Court decisions and study them, you can determine the general manner in which natural resources (and wildlife among them) are managed in the U.S.  And that is the Doctrine.

The nuts and bolts of our Public Trust Doctrine (with regard to wildlife) are this:  people do not 'own' specific wildlife (e.g., such as those on their land...which is the case in some other countries in the world).  And, the 'king' does not own wildlife in the United States--our separation from England made that loud and clear, and our history dates back to people who were not happy about the fact that the King of England had deer in his forests that could not be touched by the common person.

Who does own wildlife in the US?  People in the U.S. own the wildlife in common as citizens of individual states.  The State holds that ownership as a 'public trust.'   In a few instances, the federal government has been given that 'trust'...with endangered species, with migratory species, and when issues of inter-state commerce arise.  

The upshot is...as a citizen of Nebraska, I own the wildlife of Nebraska along with all of my fellow citizens.  I don't have a right to take a specific individual, however (I have to wait for hunting season that has been established by the State).

This 'public trust' gets interesting from time to time.  Typically, we citizens put the management of our wildlife in the hands of a state agency that we (citizens) have formed (at some point in the past).  In Nebraska, that is the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  In Iowa, it is the Iowa DNR.  Their biologists and managers make decisions on behalf (and somehow in the interests) of all state citizens.

However, with the advent of ballot initiatives (Nebraska was one of the first states to use a ballot initiative by the way--to create our unicameral legislature), that Public Trust has often been yanked out of the hands of the state wildlife agency and placed squarely in the hands of the voting public.  

A timely example is in the state of Michigan, which is reported to have up to three ballot initiatives related to wildlife pending for next November's general election.  A couple of them are related to an emotional issue--wolf management (to hunt or not to hunt).  A special interest group wants to ban the hunt; the state wildlife agency has approved the hunt.  Thus, the stage for the ballot initiative is set, and it will be a show-down.  

So, should the public take the reins on issues like this?  Ballot initiatives are surely legal.  But, the basic question was stated nicely by a member of a citizens' group (article here): “Are you going to have scientists manage your wildlife? Or are you going to have emotional commercials and who can spend the most on TV commercials?"

Ballot initiatives are here to stay, and my advice to my students has been---know that this can happen, and be prepared to work within the ballot initiative system.  That means--be prepared to get information to the public to let them make an informed decision.  It may mean out-competing a special interest group using faulty information.  Public relations is something for which our wildlife students do not receive much training.

Our profession needs to come to grips with the trend for ballot initiatives.  It is clear that the "public" in Public Trust Doctrine does not HAVE to refer, by default, to the state wildlife agency.  It is also clear that results from ballot initiatives can be swayed by emotion and short-term thinking rather than long-term objectives for management for the common good.  Something to ponder...

November 28, 2013

More about pheasants: listen to Harvest Public Media

In a follow-up to my previous posts about landscape change, you might enjoy listening to a story by Grant Gerlock--it was carried by NET radio this week.

Go here and click on the play button at "listen to this story".

The title is:  "Pheasants losing habitat to farmland"


NET video: changing landscapes

I was interviewed a week ago by Grant Gerlock with Harvest Public Media.  Grant asked me to describe the changes that have take place on a section of land near Ord, NE.  Here is the video of that discussion: