Defending eastern Colorado’s grasslands against government subsidies.
Last week Colorado Senator Michael Bennet proposed a soil conservation measure that would end a loophole, whereby taxpayers are again subsidizing the plowing of fragile grasslands that are highly susceptible to erosion. Good for him. He is right about the issue, and his proposal would help, but he made two mysterious tactical decisions.
First, he called it the “sod saver bill,” an obvious effort to separate it from the now-famous “sodbuster bill” that so distinguished the career of his much-admired predecessor, the late Senator Bill Armstrong. Second, all his explanations failed even to mention Armstrong’s pioneering work on it. Neither is a mistake in any legislative sense; Armstrong’s work on it is a matter of history, not law. But it is a curious oversight from a political perspective, since the earlier effort was so bipartisan, so universally credited as a great success, and so closely identified with Colorado. It would be statesmanlike for Bennet to say, “Some scoundrels have found a way to cheat the spirit of the sodbuster law, but I’m going to protect Colorado’s proud conservation legacy.” Why wouldn’t Bennet want to associate himself with that history?
The saga began in 1980 with an elderly lady named Edith Steiger Phillips of Keota, a little farming village in the Pawnee National Grasslands on Colorado’s eastern plains. She could not keep her barn painted because every time the wind blew, it got sandblasted by blowing dust from neighboring farms. She told Armstrong that eastern investors were buying thousands of acres of fragile grasslands and plowing them up, not because they wanted to grow crops, but because they wanted the government subsidies. That sod took decades to build, she explained, but when broken up by the plow, the topsoil can erode quickly, making it nearly impossible for the grasses to recover. She turned out to be right (she had once been a pilot, author, and economics professor). In fact, the problem was far more extensive even than Edith Phillips suspected.
Not all of the culprits were eastern investors, of course; some of them were long-time local farm families just doing their best to make a living under the laws Congress had passed. That led to an inescapable conclusion that the federal farm program itself (a complex system of subsidies and regulations) had made grain production more profitable than rangeland. In other words, the government was encouraging — incentivizing — the practice of destroying native grasslands, which threatened to create another “dust bowl,” like that of the 1930s. In some areas, like Keota, it was already beginning to happen.
Armstrong introduced a bill in 1981 to deny federal farm program subsidies (price supports, loan guarantees, crop insurance, and disaster payments) to farmers who converted fragile grasslands to cropland. It applied only to land that had not been farmed during the previous decade; it did not apply to land already in production; and it did not tell farmers what they or could not do. It merely cut off taxpayer subsidies for those grasslands that were so vulnerable to wind erosion.
Several members of Senator Armstrong’s legislative staff, including me, were treated to a rare lesson in how a bill becomes a law — but not the way we learned it in civics classes. In textbooks, the process is straightforward: you introduce a bill; it goes to a committee, which holds a hearing and sends the bill to the House floor. The House passes it and sends it to the Senate; another committee, a couple amendments, another floor vote; then a conference committee works out differences between the House and Senate versions; the final bill passes both Houses again and is sent to the President for signature. Done. But that is not the real process. Here’s how it really works: you introduce a bill, everyone in Washington is opposed to it, and the Committee Chairman refuses even to hold a hearing. Now what?
Agriculture Committee staffers were annoyed that a Senator who was not a member of their committee would presume to mess around in their business. Bureaucrats at the Agriculture Department (USDA) told us we just didn’t understand how their programs worked. Powerful agriculture lobbyists thought it couldn’t be right if it wasn’t their idea.
One low-level bureaucrat at USDA — we’ll call him Joe Blow (pun intended) — was especially resistant, and continually threatened a Presidential veto, should the bill ever pass. Once when Armstrong’s vote was badly needed on a budget measure and the White House called to arrange a meeting with him, Armstrong told them he was happy to meet on it, but only with Joe Blow. They couldn’t imagine why a Senator would want to talk to some low-level USDA employee about the budget bill, but Armstrong just smiled and said, “Ask him; he’ll tell you.” The White House tracked him down, and Joe never again raised any objection to the sodbuster bill. In fact, the Administration testified in favor of it the next time around.
It seemed that there were a million reasons to oppose Armstrong’s soil erosion bill. It was dubbed “the sodbuster bill” by detractors making fun of the idea, but that turned out to be a mistake on their part. The name was catchy, it stuck, and it helped draw national attention to an environmentally devastating practice — and the taxpayer subsidies that encouraged it.
Armstrong reintroduced the bill in every Congress for the next four years, and offered it as a floor amendment to other bills several times, each time gaining a little more momentum. He introduced Edith Phillips to other Senators, and hosted meetings with various stakeholders. A diverse coalition was finally assembled in support of the bill, including the Farm Bureau and Farmers Union, conservation groups, commodity groups, and many others. Armstrong convinced the committee chairman to hold a hearing, and testified that during the prior three years, a half-million acres of fragile grasslands had been plowed. The land was highly erodible, and when the crops failed, the government would bail out the investors, encouraging even more plowing.
Part of the problem was that Congress had never legally defined “highly-erodible” soil, or determined what constituted “fragile,” “prime and unique,” or any of the other terms used by various groups to describe these native grasslands. However, we discovered that an obscure office of the old Soil Conservation Service at USDA actually had a soil classification system for its own internal use, which was highly accurate, well-defined, and perfect for the sodbuster bill.
The legislation ultimately attracted bipartisan support in both Houses. Then-Congressman Hank Brown carried the House version. By the time the regular four-year farm program authorization bill came around in 1985, its entire conservation section was built around the sodbuster provision. The concept belittled by so many just four years earlier, was by 1985 almost universally accepted as sound public policy. It codified for the first time that system for classifying and defining the unique soils that should never be plowed, at least not at public expense.
Today it remains the basis of the entire Conservation Reserve Program, and one of the great milestones in the history of conservation.
By 1990 the little village of Keota had lost its battle and was unincorporated, its post office and school gone. The place has all but literally blown away, a modern-day ghost town. But little do travelers passing through know the vital role it, and a resident named Edith Steiger Phillips, played in saving what’s left of America’s native grasslands. Her gravestone reads, “In loving memory of Edith Grace Steiger’s life and efforts to preserve the Colorado Prairie.”