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Farmland in the CRP progam, covered in native grasses, trees and forbes.

Living in a mostly rural state (like Iowa, North Dakota and Wisconsin, among others) has its advantages.

Smaller human populations mainly concentrated in urban areas allows one to find areas of these states — and others even less populated, like Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota where I have never lived but have visited, hunted or fished — to find open spaces where land is visible between houses and farms.

I have come to the conclusion I am not a city dweller (not that there is anything wrong with that lifestyle). I tried it for a while but these open spaces, if only small and getting smaller all the time due to human encroachment, call to me and others like me who long for their protection and preservation for as long as possible.

From small woodlots to mountain ranges and from vast grasslands to the tiniest bits of native or restored prairie, these areas remind me of a time long ago when our country was wild and wide open and people looked at some areas of it and said, “this is too daunting or too rare or too beautiful to lose. We must protect it for other generations to appreciate.”

I marvel at folks like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Steven Mather, Aldo Leopold, and others who devoted part or all of their lives to this cause — I wish I could thank them in person for what they did for our protecting our natural world in the U.S., and beyond in some instances. I feel privileged to have been able to choose a career where I could also influence these similar (yet very small in comparison) decisions to care for and balance the use of our public lands, air and waters, even if just for a short 30 years.

It wasn’t until I started to look at my personal lifestyle, my belief system, and started to get a chance to visit amazing places around our great country that I began to put the pieces together of how much is tied to our lands and waters. Living in North Dakota for a brief time in my early 20s was like an epiphany for me.

So much land, so few people, so many resources, and also so much beauty all in one albeit cold and relatively tree-less place. Miles and miles of open prairie, fields of blooming sunflowers interspersed where land was dry enough to farm, wetlands and marshes everywhere you looked and wildlife by the thousands.

There was public access to land all over the state for whatever outdoor recreational experience you desired. The place felt wild, even though it had farms and agriculture and, like I said, few but some very great citizens. I could have easily stayed in North Dakota for many years, though I assume it would have been lonely as my wife and kids would have headed for warmer climates with or without me, so we headed to Iowa.

Iowa was different in the late 1980s. It had a less wild feel about it than North Dakota, though small pockets of “wilderness’ remained, even if almost all of it was in private ownership. Tree lined streams and rivers, patches of restored prairies, and wetlands full of wildlife could be seen regularly as you criss-crossed the state. Land management programs (like the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP for short) were in their infancy, or some had been established for a few years. Though Iowa led the nation (and still does) in percentage of land in private ownership, a visit with a farmer or landowner and some goodies like gifts of cheese and apples would usually gain you access to hunting areas to chase pheasants, quail, waterfowl, or even deer and turkeys.

Sometimes you got shut down with a “no”, but I respected those answers, thanked the folks for their time, and went on about traveling the dusty back roads in search of new places to hunt. Gradually over time, though things began to change even more in Iowa, and I assume in other states as well. Those beautiful fields of waving prairie grass in CRP fields were disked under and planted to crops like corn and soybeans whose price had skyrocketed because of supply and demand — mainly demand. Private wetlands, a real rarity now in Iowa, were drained with underground tile so they could now be crop farmed. Fewer and fewer species of wildlife were forced onto dwindling parcels of land that held cover and shelter sufficient enough to provide a good living. Species like the pheasant and quail as well as songbirds and beneficial insects lost valuable nesting territory. Small towns where people celebrated the opening of the pheasant/quail hunting seasons with celebration as their busiest times of year in hotels, restaurants, and bars now see very few visitors, if any, to their rural towns in the fall in this pursuit.

You can’t fully blame the landowners for this dramatic change — they have to make a living as well and when you get $7.00 a bushel for corn like a few years back, you can’t sit their and collect $125 an acre annual payment under the CRP program for leaving your ground fallow. It does not make business sense to any self-respecting farmer, yet a few of these places where the ground was too steep to farm or not very productive or the landowners decided to chance it, these areas remained in grasses and marshes and trees.

Another thing happened as these natural looking areas disappeared under the disk or in front of a bulldozer; increased runoff of topsoil and chemicals into our streams and rivers. Wells used for drinking water became conduits (literally) for pesticides to enter the aquifers we rely on for drinking water. Great rivers like the Mississippi River became further choked with silt and salts, causing environmental concerns as well as commercial concerns like dredging and increased flooding costing billions and billions of dollars to address.

You are probably asking me if reading this, “okay Mr. Negative, why the lesson in doom and gloom”? Well, because I have only been in Iowa since 1989 — that is 29 years if my math is correct — and the changes I have seen in the landscape and rivers in that short of a time-span are dramatic. I see no signs of them improving unless people take ownership and address some of these issues.

“And how does one do that” you may ask, “I am not a farmer or land owner?“ Well one of the easiest ways to address a bunch of these issues is to educate yourself on and talk to your representatives in elected office about the next Farm Bill that will hopefully be passed sometime in the next year and a half (the current bill was passed on February 7, 2014, and is authorized for five years). Everything I have written about here and much more is addressed in farm bills — it is a single piece of legislation with maybe the farthest reaching effects on us all.

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition states on its web page, “The farm bill connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources — our soil , air and water — that make growing food possible.” I could not have said it better myself, and it is a broad and all-encompassing statement that affects everyone in our country, and beyond our borders as well, as we all must eat to live, have clean drinking water, and our food is shipped worldwide and imported to us from all parts of the world.

So again this little old farm bill is important — extremely important — to us all. Change is constant. I have seen changes in my short time here on this planet, and most of it not for the good or benefit of this beautiful land. I choose to make my case known to anyone I can and to live a lifestyle that promotes a healthy concern for our soil, air and water for now and future generations to enjoy. Your call as to how you choose to deal with this change. Just acknowledging that you have witnessed even some of these changes is a start. Educate yourself — and when done make your voice, your vote, and your connection on how these changes effect you and your families a pathway to making a positive difference.

Thanks for reading my column. Enjoy nature, and be an active participant in whatever way you can to help protect our beautiful planet.

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John F. Knoble is a retired Natural Resource Specialist born and raised in Wisconsin who now lives on an acreage in rural Goose Lake, Iowa with his wife of 35 years Tina, and their German Shorthaired Pointer Greta.