Ranchers, lawmakers split over bill to protect grasslands
New congressional legislation, The North American Grasslands Conservation Act, would authorize about $300 million of federal spending annually for several years to incentivize states, landowners and tribes to restore and conserve grasslands.
Proponents argue the bill is good for rural economies, habitat, agriculture and the climate.
According to a South Dakota State University study, South Dakota lost 1.8 million acres of grass from 2006 to 2012. And the World Wildlife Fund released a report showing the Great Plains lost over 2.5 million acres of intact grassland from 2018 to 2019 alone.
Jim Faulstich and his son-in-law ranch and farm about 10,000 acres just outside of Highmore. He said the act would be beneficial for the state's ranching community.
"We need to keep some grasslands out there and we need to have some incentives to do it," Faulstich said. "The cattle price and the desire to have grass is not going to do it. So we need incentives out there. And I think the grassland act would be one of those that could play a part in that."
The bill would create a new public-private partnership grant program that would fund grassland conservation, restoration, protection and enhancement projects.
The legislation has a predecessor called the North American Wetland Conservation Act, which passed in 1989. That bill created a public-private partnership grant program that has improved, restored and preserved more than 30 million acres of wetlands.
“It's been very successful from the standpoint of conserving wetlands, preserving endangered species, migratory species. But it also has been very friendly to the ranching world," Faulstich said.
However, Sen. John Thune, Sen. Mike Rounds and Rep. Dusty Johnson, all Republicans from South Dakota, said they will not support the grasslands bill.
Johnson said he would rather modify existing programs than support a new one.
“While I do think we need to work together to protect our natural resources and the environment, I’m not sure this bill is the solution," Johnson said in an emailed statement. "I am a firm believer in public-private partnerships, and utilizing and making any modifications to existing programs such as the Grasslands Conservation Reserve Program before we start establishing new programs."
Thune's office said the grasslands bill is too broad.
"Sen. Thune is a strong supporter of grasslands conservation, with a long record to prove it," his office said in a statement. "With respect to this partisan bill, though, he would like to see it narrowed and become more focused on the actual need."
Rounds said he doesn't see the need for a new program.
"This would be run through the Department of Interior, basically, with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. I don't like that idea," Rounds said. "I'd much rather have anything like this be run through the department of Ag. I think they do a better job of working with farmers and ranchers."