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Sidebar 2: The Role of the Conservation Reserve Program in Controlling Rural Residential Development

Jerry Johnson
Bruce Maxwell

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), can play a role in slowing and even preventing sprawl on the rural countryside in regions where population is growing. Using a land use prediction model designed for a mixed agricultural/residential landscape in southwest Montana, we demonstrated that CRP is shown to preserve and protect the vital ecological functions sustained by the preservation of agricultural land as well as curtailing the supply of land for rural residential development. With CRP as part of the land management mosaic, the area was projected to have an average residential land use growth rate of almost half that of areas without CRP enrollment.

CRP is not without some negative impacts to agricultural communities including a decline in local agricultural employment and associated economic activity as well as changing consumer spending habits. Very simply, as less land is cultivated, less labor is needed for farming, less crop is stored in local granaries, and fewer implements are replaced or maintained. In many cases small businesses that directly supported agriculture fail and as they do so other "main street" businesses suffer. At the same time farmers were somewhat better off economically as their farm incomes stabilized due to guaranteed CRP payments.

We conducted a study of land use change in Three Forks, Montana. The town lies at the headwaters of the Missouri River in Gallatin County and is an ideal community for the investigation of rural change as it makes a transition from an economy based primarily on natural resources to one that is increasingly regionalized toward Bozeman and Helena. The geographically diverse landscape requires that most agricultural activity is itself highly disjointed - both how it is spatially located and in terms of production; that is, hay and grain production is mixed with beef cattle operations. However the diversity of the landscape, the large riparian zones, and agricultural mix creates an attractive location for those who like small rural towns with nearby employment opportunity. The local microclimate is dry and windy and is comprised of locations of highly erodable soils thereby enabling much of the local agricultural land to qualify for CRP enrollment.

Using a Geographical Information System (GIS) platform, we began the study of land use change with an inventory of land use in the area and then calculated a probability transition matrix (multiple layers of information through time and space) for land use analysis and forecasting purposes in a landscape dominated by private ownership.

We calculated our land use change forecasts in two ways - one with CRP in the land management mix and one without CRP.

The results of the map cells classified as residential following the two growth scenarios indicate that with CRP in the land use mix the extent of rural residential development in the study area decreased and resulted in two diverging trend lines that represent the number of cells that could be expected to have changed from no development to residential with and without CRP in the prediction equation (see figure below).

Land use chart
Data table for Figure 4
Year Without CRP With CRP
2000 98 84
2005 105 88
2015 121 95
2025 137 104

With CRP in the land management mix the number of cells in residential land use was observed and predicted to have grown 14% between 1984 to 1995 and 23% from 2000 to 2025. Without CRP in the mix, the area was projected to have a residential land use growth rate of 27% and 40% growth rates for the same periods.

The finding is important for several reasons. Aside from the obvious economic benefits of retaining agricultural employment and earnings in a rural economy, keeping agricultural lands intact can be a desirable amenity for community residents. The strategy preserves open space and prevents piecemeal residential development. Agricultural land in CRP can benefit the ecology, economy, and aesthetics of the community. However, tracts of agricultural land in the midst of rapid residential growth can bring negative consequences for local residents. While rural nonfarm residents may enjoy the open space provided by active farming operations, some farming activities may be considered bothersome. This includes negative public reaction to the application of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; smells from animal production activities; slow-moving farm vehicles on commuter roads; increased incidence of air pollution from harvesting and burning; and increased demand on local water supply for irrigation.

The ideal scenario might be a land management regime where the conservation and residential development effects of the program are left intact but the negative agricultural impacts are reduced. We propose that CRP could support a "mixed" land management whereby conservation of water and soil (as well as visual) qualities of farmland are preserved if farmers would manage the land to focus the conservation elements attributed to CRP into "ecological islands" or refuges within productive agricultural fields. In effect, this would optimize the landscape diversity of a rural community in which the farm spaces would be fragmented with ecologically functional patches of native species, protected riparian zones, and even recreational trails. Some rural housing may be interspersed on the edges of the large open spaces but the land would remain primarily in agricultural production. The ecological benefits of such a land use setting would be, in effect, concentrated to localized areas within the larger agricultural context. The management goal for CRP would become to continue ecological protection and for the landowner it would be to preserve agricultural production. The community would benefit through the preservation of open space.