Conservation needed to prevent a return to the ‘bad old days’

Carol Abrahamzon

Mississippi Valley Conservancy


Dave Vetrano, a retired DNR wildlife biologist, was among many sources who warned in a recent La Crosse Tribune story – titled “Crop boom threatens land in birthplace of soil conservation,” published Nov. 12 – that the explosion in corn production is overwhelming land conservation.

The Tribune’s excellent coverage, including both the national and local aspects of the issue, pointed out that high corn prices have encouraged farmers to plant on lands such as hilltops and steep slopes sensitive to erosion. The result was predictable – erosion that carves gullies in the land and harms the water quality of the streams.

Vetrano was the speaker earlier this month at Mississippi Valley Conservancy’s annual banquet. He was invited to speak on the theme “A Watershed Moment” because of his long-time efforts in the region’s watersheds to protect trout streams.

Helping farmers find ways to give more permanent protection for their land is the focus of a project by MVC and other partners in the Kickapoo River Watershed. Funded by the McKnight Foundation, the project seeks to identify priority areas for conservation and ways that land owners can protect their land and water quality of streams while still operating profitably.

The Kickapoo Grazing Initiative, for example, promotes grass-based agriculture and managed grazing as a sustainable and economically viable choice for farmers and landowners in the Kickapoo Valley.

Vetrano showed MVC members slides of the deep gullies of the early 1900s to remind us of how bad things got before we got conservation religion and began to implement practices such as those by the Haugens in Coon Valley, who placed a conservation easement with MVC on their farm to ensure their practices would be permanent.

That kind of dedication to protection of the soil and water of our region is what’s needed to prevent, as Vetrano put it, “a return to the bad old days of the 1920s and 30s.”

Yes, public support is needed to produce a federal farm bill that provides adequate funding for the Conservation Reserve Program to reduce the incentive for landowners to withdraw conservation land as has happened throughout our region – more than half of the land that was in conservation in some of the counties.

But, as we have seen, the farm bill conservation programs have not proven to be permanent. The success of land conservation in the region still remains largely with the landowners who must balance their personal land ethic with their need to produce income from the land.

When that balance tilts toward permanent conservation agreements, MVC and others in the land conservation business are ready to help.


Carol Abrahamzon is the executive director of the Mississippi Valley Conservancy.