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B) DON KENDALL
AP Farm Writer
WASHINGTON It may seem
lke a little thing to bulldoze the
water-logged stumps, clear the brush
and drain the puddles so an extra 40
acres can be planted to crops next
spring. But there's a new federal law
that farmers should keep in mind.
The Food Security Act of 1985 In-
cludes sodbuster and swampbuster
provisions that can deny federal
benefits to farmers who plant highly
erodible land or wetlands.
Agriculture Department econo-
mists Ralph Heimlich and Linda
Langner say U.S. wetlands low-
land areas filled with moisture -
are perceived by some as dark,
brooding places filled with snakes.
mosquitoes and other creatures.
Others see them as good places for
hunting, fishing and boating.
Regardless, America's wetlands
are a valuable natural resource that
has dwindled to around 99 million
acres from 127 million to 215 million
acres in the 1800s, they say in the la-
test issue of USDA's Farmline maga-
"Swampbusting, converting wet-
lands for farming, began before the
turn of the century," Helmlich said.
"Historically, swamps and marshes
have been thought of negatively, as
land that had to be reclaimed and
In fact, early federal programs
led to swampbusting by providing
advice and financial aid to drain
swamps and marshes for reasons of
public health. Direct government
assistance for agricultural conver-
sion was available until 1978.
But Congress in the 1985 farm
law recognized that swampbusting
must be restrained, providing that
farmers Who drain wetlands stand a
chance of losing eligibility for farm
program benefits, including USDA
price support programs, disaster
payments, crop Insurance and
Farmers Home Administration
"The availability of farm pro-
gram benefits conflicted with other
government policies that encour-
aged wetlands conservation," Ms.
Langner said. "The new provisions
are designed to make the policies
According to the Soil Conserva-
tion Society of America, a private,
non-profit organization, wetlands
can reduce the risk of flooding by
storing water during periods of high
stream flow and then releasing it
gradually when streams recede.
Swamps and marshes also im-
prove water quality because they
trap sediment, sewage and other pol-
lutants. Their ability to "absorb"
water also enables wetlands to help
stabilize shorelines against erosion
and storm damage.
Wetlands also are home for a
multitude of plants and animals, say
the conservationists. Approximately
two-thirds of all commercial fish, in-
cluding bluefish and striped bass,
spawn in estuaries and marshes.
Freshwater wetlands are critical
feeding, spawning and nursery
grounds for bass, northern pike and
perch. Saltwater marshes are home
for 15 leading commercial fish and
shellfish such as craps, shrimp and
Conservationists also note that at
least 50 fur-bearing animals such as
muskrat and mink live in swamps
and marshes. Waterfowl are most
closely associated with wetlands,
with ducks and geese depending on
them as their main breeding
According to the USDA econo-
mists, swampbusting threatens wild-
life areas in Florida, North Carolina,
some upper Midwestern states In-
cluding Nebraska and North Dakota,
and lower Mississippi River states
such as Arkansas, Mississippi and
Farmers generally convert land
when crop prices are high enough to
trigger greater profits. Helmlich and
Ms. Langner estimate that about 43
million acres of the remaining 99
million acres of wetlands could be
farmed if drained. About 78 million
acres are privately owned.
"Economic conditions, to some
extent, have reduced the amount of
wetlands being drained in recent
years," Ms. Langner said. "But this is
a short-term condition. In the long
run, there is still the potential for in-
The two USDA economists pr-
dicted that the law's swampbuster
sanctions will be more effective in
upper Midwestern states where gov-
ernment payments make up alargr
percentage of farm income.
High conversion costs and
changes in the tax code will prob-
ably be greater obstacles to wet-
lands drainage, they said.