The statement that Iowa has experienced a loss of forested acres for the first time in 40 years surprised me as I read an article in the Sunday paper earlier this morning. I guess it shouldn’t have, because it referenced a U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service report that was issued last year. I may have noted it then, but had forgotten it amidst all the other bad news. The report documented a net loss of 97,000 acres of forest cover between 2009 and 2013 — 192,000 acres of forest cover were actually lost, while only 95,000 acres of new forest was planted, according to the report. Conversion to agricultural uses (crops and pasture) was responsible for 71 percent of that loss. That’s really no surprise, since growing crops accounts for about 26 million acres of Iowa’s 36 million acre total. Record high corn prices early in the study period led to a desire for more cropland at a time that land prices also hit record highs. It was cheaper to clear timber for more crops than it was to buy more land, if suitable cropland could even be found for sale.
What goes up must eventually come down, though. Crop prices and land values have done so. Recent news indicates that 2017 may end up adding to a string of years when the cost of production exceeds the value of crops sold. It’s not just a little ironic and sad that all those forest acres that took many decades to grow were lost just to lose money on more acres of cropland. Interest in enrolling less productive acres into the Conservation Reserve Program jumped again as crop values declined. That could lead to planting more permanent vegetation (including trees) on some of those same acres that were so recently bulldozed. That could be a good thing, but CRP total acreage caps also declined in recent years. Most Iowa counties are already near the maximum CRP acreage allowed by current federal farm program caps and few new acres of CRP are likely to get signed up. Conservationists and farmers are concerned that even tighter CRP caps are in the future as a way to reduce the cost of the federal farm program.
Water quality would certainly benefit from restoring permanent vegetation on more acres of Iowa land. So would wildlife habitat. I attended Story County Pheasants Forever’s 31st annual banquet last night. There was cautious optimism that slightly lower official counts of pheasants during the August roadside surveys will prove to be wrong. It was very dry during the time the counts were conducted and dewy mornings were few. Pheasant broods can be counted because they hate being wet and escape the wet grass to country roadsides to dry off on dewy mornings. There was also general concern about the threat of reduced CRP acreage. Pheasants may hate wet grass, but they hate no grass even worse. In fact, there are virtually no pheasants (and little other wildlife) where there is no permanent grass or other vegetative cover.
What can we, as individuals, do to address continued threats to our water quality and wildlife habitat? For one, we can let our senators and representatives in Washington know that we want more, not less, CRP acres on the land. We can also plant trees, and there’s still time to do that this fall. Some nurseries may even have sales going on to reduce winter stock carryover. We’re destined to lose most of our ash trees in the years ahead as emerald ash borers continue their lethal spread across Iowa. Our oaks are threatened by a variety of diseases and stresses. Some oak problems have been around for decades, but other widespread disorders are likely caused by humans and fairly recent in origin. One thing is certain. The downward trend in Iowa’s forest and other permanent vegetation cover won’t stop unless we and our elected leaders step up to make that happen!
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.