For the most part, the staff here at NEBRASKAland Magazine chooses the stories they want to write. That usually works great, allowing staff to focus on their strengths and interests.
When you open your July issue of the magazine and see my byline on a piece titled “Ethanol and Wildlife – a Bad Mix?” know this: it wasn’t my idea – it was assigned. Jon Farrar and Jeff Kurrus ganged up on me. “You need to write this story,” they said. I whined like a little boy. “I don’t wanna.” But to no avail. They seem to think I do a good job covering issues like this, and that this story needed to be told. I’ll let the readers be the judge on the first count, but they were right on the second.
Global warming is a stark reality, even though some still don’t believe it. We need to find new ways to power our cars and homes and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Ethanol is one piece of a puzzle that is taking much longer than it should to finish. Not only can ethanol reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it also provides an economic boost to farmers growing the corn and small towns where plants are located. And don’t think for a second that I’m against either of those.
But as is often the case, there are unforeseen or overlooked environmental consequences to new technologies. We saw it at the start of the industrial revolution and beyond, when waste was dumped into our waterways, and the damage that caused to aquatic ecosystems and human health. We saw it with DDT, which drove bald eagles and other raptors to the brink of extinction. While not nearly on the same level of environmental damage, we’re seeing environmental consequences of things like wind power, which as I wrote in “Wind power- not entirely green” in the December 2009 NEBRASKAland, can displace prairie wildlife that is already suffering from habitat loss. And now, we’re seeing the effects of ethanol on land use, providing another hit on prairie wildlife. As a pheasant hunter, I don’t take the loss of 5 million acres of CRP lightly. As an angler, I don’t like the idea of seeing more silt washed into my favorite fishing hole.
The mission of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is stewardship of the state’s fish, wildlife, park, and outdoor recreation resources in the best long-term interests of the people and those resources. So what happens when something that is good for some people isn’t necessarily good for fish and wildlife, and the people who appreciate them? It’s a sticky wicket, which is why I wasn’t crazy about writing the story. But this side of the story hasn’t been told enough. There is a cost related to plowing up grasslands, whether they are native or CRP, which should be figured into the overall cost of ethanol production. Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul?
I don’t blame farmers for taking their land out of CRP to capitalize on high crop prices. Few of us, if faced with the same decision, could afford to do otherwise, even if we really wanted to maintain our CRP for wildlife. Rental rates paid to farmers for CRP, while they were increased in the last Farm Bill, still do not compete with real-world cash rental rates. They should. And with discussions underway on the next Farm Bill, you can help try to change that by calling or writing your senator or congressman.
Corn ethanol is only the beginning of the biofuel story. The next generation of biofuels will come from other sources, including switch grass, algae or cedar trees, and they may provide even greater environmental benefits. Read more about that in next month’s issue.