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Farmers and Wildlife Can Co-Exist

Tulare County Farm Bureau President Chris Hash thinks the Endangered Species Act "is now spinning out of control." This is the most blatant expression of the notion of "let's kill the messenger" that I have heard in a long while. Environmentalists and farmers ought to be the greatest of allies, but too many farmers like Mr. Hash fail to recognize this. Far from being a conflict, sustainable agriculture can and should mutually benefit both wildlife needs and human needs.

What are the real facts?

* In California, 58% of the animal species listed as endangered, and 75% of the state-listed plant species are still in decline despite listing under the Endangered Species Act. As for wildlife habitat, 94% of California's interior wetlands have been lost, together with 80% of the coastal wetlands, 89% of riparian woodlands, and 99% of native grasslands. It is time to restore some balance.

* In the Sacramento Delta, water diversions have killed off 99% of the winter-run salmon, 75% of the striped bass, and nearly all of the Delta Smelt. But our desire to improve water quality in the Delta is not merely to benefit fish and wildlife, but also to help farmers in that region who have crops needing protection from salt-water intrusion, commercial fishermen who also need jobs, and people who need drinking water. So don't give us the story that this is a "fish vs. people" issue.

* Agriculture itself cannot thrive without biological diversity in crop plants and animals. Farmers ought to understand this better than anyone, since wild strains of corn and wheat have protected those crops from otherwise disastrous diseases.

* Salt buildup on irrigated soils lowers crop yields on 25 - 30% of the nation's irrigated land. Evaporation of water near the soil surface of much irrigated land leaves a layer of toxic selenium and other salts that reduce crop yields on many California fields. When the buildup becomes excessive, it can kill crops. If drained to places like Kesterson or to evaporation ponds, it kills wildlife by causing horrendous birth defects and contaminates the soil for any use. Environmentalists and responsible farmers ought to be equally concerned about this problem.

* Degradation of irrigated land from poor water management, including irrigation of drylands better left for wildlife habitat, is forcing some land to be retired from farming permanently, not because of the Endangered Species Act or the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, but because of soil contamination. It is these west-side, low-value crop lands, threatened by salinization, that will inevitably be retired, not Tulare County's high value citrus orchards.

* In the San Joaquin Valley and much of the West's farmland, falling water tables signal that groundwater withdrawals exceed the rate of replenishment. What does the future hold in store for us if these practices are allowed to continue?

To argue that the Endangered Species Act is "out of control," seems ludicrous in the face of these realities.

Competition for water indeed represents one of the greatest conflicts today between farmers and fish and wildlife. But if water quality standards for the San Francisco Bay and Delta had been implemented 15 or 20 years ago as they should have been, there would be little conflict today. The selenium-contaminated irrigated land in the western San Joaquin Valley teaches us that it was a mistake to bring those lands into production in the first place If irrigation of these west-side lands and low-value crops grown there were discontinued, it would be possible to use the water to restore much of California's lost fisheries and wetlands, with little or no impact on our Tulare County farmers using more productive land.

Even the example of endangered species shows that farmers ought to be joining with environmentalists in a global call to protect biological diversity. Biological diversity is in fact a key component of agriculture, and the loss of various species in California and in Tulare County in particular is only one part of a global extinction crisis that also includes the loss of genetic diversity among agricultural products. For a farmer to attack the Endangered Species Act is as short-sighted as it would be for an insurance company to oppose earthquake standards in structural designs. If they would embrace these concerns now, they will not only head off excessive future regulation that will otherwise be inevitable, but profit economically by their foresight.

To protect endangered species requires cooperation from farmers, ranchers, developers, and other land owners to help make sure that species never become threatened with extinction. It is not feasible, nor should it be necessary, for the government to buy all the land necessary to ensure adequate protection of California's rich biological diversity. Many endangered species are found in riparian habitats, or vernal pools, or wetlands which are not really suitable over the long haul for agricultural use. Many farmers and other private land-owners are discovering that cooperative partnerships with conservation organizations and wildlife protection agencies not only allows, but actually safeguards compatible economic uses of their land. In fact, farmers and ranchers can save both their farms and significant tax money through donation of conservation easements, protecting the land from future urban encroachment. Thus, farmers concerned about loss of agricultural land to urban encroachment, a problem which will only get worse in Tulare County, should be seeking partnerships with conservation organizations and land trusts rather than fighting against these groups.

What is needed is sustainable agriculture. Scientists warn us that, globally, current methods of heavy dependence on irrigation, pesticides, and fossil fuels are simply not sustainable over the long term. These practices will inevitably change, not because environmentalists succeed in making what Mr. Hash derides as "politically correct" changes, but because the laws of physics and biology will require it.

The greatest threats to agriculture are not water diversions for wildlife and maintaining water quality, nor is it "organic" farming. The greatest threats to agriculture are the same things that most worry environmentalists: air pollution, urban sprawl, loss of biological diversity, groundwater depletion, rising concentrations of salts in irrigated soil, soil erosion, and deteriorating water quality. Farmers ought to be the environmentalists' best friends. It is a shame that too many of them don't understand this.

Published as Guest Commentary in Visalia Times-Delta, January 26, 1994

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