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Agricultural co-existence with ecological restoration

Ecological restoration studies the mending of the ecosystem. Recently the word "restoration" has been used to include reconstruction, rebuilding, transformation, and replanting. It means to improve and restore the ecosystem and renew its biological diversity.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is a voluntary set-aside program meant to improve soil erosion, control crop overproduction, boost water quality, and expand availability of wildlife habitat.

The ability of set-aside programs to create wildlife habitats has been widely recognized. The CRP provides a variety of financial incentives (rental agreements, cost sharing, etc.) for farmers to change cropland in susceptible areas into grassland, forest, and other forms of land cover through contracts with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Environmental benefits and creation of wildlife habitat are now main goals of the CRP. Roughly 14 million hectares of habitat are now under CRP contract. This represents a sizeable addition to wildlife habitat. CRP is a vital supplier of changes in the makeup and pattern of agricultural landscapes.

Some farming practices can have a negative effect on natural resources while others can improve them. USDA conservation programs offer farmers help with preservation efforts:
Working-land programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program offer technical and financial support to farmers who set up or maintain conservation practices.
Programs like the Conservation Reserve Program eliminate land from agricultural use for at least 10 years.
Agricultural land conservation programs like the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program buy rights to certain land.
Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) provides technical support for installing ecological practices.

USDA Economic Research Service tracks conservation program funding and analyzes trends in support for these four categories. ERS research looks at the cost-effectiveness and fairness of agri-environmental programs, identifying programs that show environmental improvement.

ERS also looks at the impact of wider farming policies and programs on land use and conservation practices. Findings show the tradeoffs involved in program include:
"Green payments" - payments that assist both farm income and conservation objectives - could necessitate that program designers trade goals. Conservation programs can support farm income but at a possible cost in terms of environmental gains. Commodity programs can be made "greener" but probably will not fix agri-environmental problems or do so cost-effectively.
Targeting efforts through eligibility requirements, contribution incentives, or enrollment screens can be used to concentrate payments on fields, practices, or specific resource practices most likely to produce the most ecological benefits.
Bidding - a procedure in which farmers vie for conservation payments - integrates open market features into preservation programs and can show the costs of participating and the benefits applicants would likely supply.
Paying farmers for specific preservation practices and paying for the environmental implementation are two other approaches with clear benefits. Payments that center on practices with high predictable benefits may be a practical compromise.

Successful environmental restoration requires a basis of thorough scientific understanding of any system being restored or managed. Understanding and predicting the effects of set-aside programs like CRP or agri-environment schemes is complex and difficult, but necessary.

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