Public lands that belong to the federal Conservation Reserve Program are being opened to livestock grazing to help farmers cope with the rising cost of feed.
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said in a statement that, "This action will provide much needed feed and forage while maintaining the conservation benefits from the nation's premier conservation program."
Schafer added, "Eligible farmers and ranchers will be able to plan for harvest of forage after the end of the primary nesting season this summer."
Over 24 million acres of land in the CRP would be available for the feed use program. Up to 18 million tons of forage estimated to be worth $1.2 billion would be opened to use.
The authorization provides some safeguards to protect the environment. Certain parts of the CRP lands would be reserved for wildlife. Site inspections would ensure compliance with conservation plans and haying or grazing would only start after the end of the primary nesting season.
Sign-up starts June 2. All forage activities must end by Nov. 10. A $75 sign-up fee would be collected from each applicant.
Neil Shader, spokesman of Ducks Unlimited, lauded the new policy for limiting use of protected land despite pressure from industry and farmers' groups. "We don't want this to be the beginning of a slippery slope, first haying and grazing, then soybeans, corn or wheat. We don't want to see this escalate," Shader was quoted as saying by USA Today.