US Government proposes funding increases to protect farmland threatened by development

The US Government is to seek an increase in funding to preserve farmland following the release of figures showing that the conversion of farmland and other open space to development has more than doubled in recent years.

The new figures, contained in the US Department of Agriculture’s 1997 National Resources Inventory, show that nearly 6.5 million ha of forest, cropland, and open space were converted to urban and other uses between 1992 to 1997.

The average rate for those five years – 1.4 million ha a year – is more than twice the rate of 0.5 million ha a year between 1982 and 1992.

The Inventory also shows that nearly 2 billion tons of soil is eroding into waterways each year. Despite gains in erosion control during the past 15 years, there has been no additional improvement since 1995. Gross wetland losses have increased to 22,000 ha annually on agricultural land.

While wetland preservation efforts have helped protect nearly 12,000 ha of wetlands, tree and forest cover in urban areas is declining at an alarming rate. In the Chesapeake Bay region, for example, tree canopy has declined from 51 percent cover to 37 percent in the last 25 years.

The figures show that the loss of farmland is no longer centred predominantly around major metropolitan areas, but is affecting growing numbers of small- and mid-sized cities in virtually every part of the US.

States with the highest acreage conversion rates include: California, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Haphazard development patterns result in the fragmentation of agricultural land, the loss of family farms that raise fresh produce for urban markets, and the elimination of open spaces.

“These new figures confirm what communities across America already

know – too much of our precious open space is being gobbled up by sprawl,”

Vice President Al Gore said. “Every time a farmer is squeezed off the land, a valuable way of life is eroded,” the Vice President said. “We can help preserve our communities, and our environment, by keeping farmers on the land.”

Releasing the National Resources Inventory, US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman called for a renewed national commitment to preserving private land. “Conservation challenges are mounting and intensifying more quickly than we are solving them,” said Glickman, addressing USDA’s National Conservation Summit at Iowa State University. “This report demonstrates that we must redouble our efforts to preserve farm and forest land, reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and protect wetlands.”

Gore said the Clinton Administration’s budget for the 20001 financial year would propose an increase for USDA’s Farmland Protection Programme, which provides resources to state and local governments to enter into voluntary agreements with farmers to preserve farmland. Typically, the funds are used to purchase ‘conservation easements’ that ensure that farmland remains in agriculture and is not developed.

For every dollar available, the USDA receives $10 in requests from state and local governments. Yet Congress has repeatedly denied the Administration’s requests for increased funding, Gore said.

The Vice President said the Administration will continue to help communities address sprawl through its Liveable Communities initiative, an array of programmes that provide tools and resources to help ease traffic congestion, protect open space, revitalise urban neighbourhoods, and strengthen local economies.

The National Resources Inventory covers non-federal land in the US and is conducted every five years by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in

co-operation with Iowa State University. It captures data from 800,000 statistically selected locations on land cover, land use, soil erosion, prime farmland, wetlands, habitat diversity, selected conservation practices, and other natural resource information. The information is statistically reliable for national, regional, statewide and multi-county use.

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