Sportsmen leap into RFS debate over concerns about habitat, water quality

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sportsmen and their congressional backers say federal ethanol policy is destroying wildlife habitat and contributing to water quality problems.

Increased demand for corn ethanol spurred by the renewable fuel standard, which mandates yearly increasing levels of biofuel use, has spurred conversion to cropland of resources vital to hunting and fishing, panelists said yesterday at a briefing organized by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation.

A major concern, panelists said, is that ethanol use has degraded water quality in the Mississippi River watershed — the nation’s largest.

“There is pressure out there to plant as much as possible because of the demand out there,” said Jim Inglis, governmental affairs representative at Pheasants Forever.

According to environmental groups, rural landowners converted more than 23 million acres of grasslands, wetlands and shrub lands to cropland between 2008 and 2011 due to government subsidies and high commodity prices prompted partly by the RFS. A study by South Dakota State University earlier this year found that farmers in just the Corn Belt converted 1.3 million acres of grassland into cropland between 2006 and 2011, largely due to ethanol.

The conversion of lands has not only squeezed wildlife habitat but also heightened fertilizer runoff that contributes to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone — a sprawling area devoid of dissolved oxygen needed by marine life — said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi.

“The results of the ethanol policies that are increasing the size of these dead zones, if they continue to grow and persist, we’re going to have tremendous environmental impacts,” McKinney, a hunter and fisherman, warned.

Sportsmen say they are jumping into the debate over the renewable fuel standard to highlight these often-overlooked concerns tied to increased planting of corn for ethanol production.

“We have a vested interest in this issue. What we’re trying to do is talk a little bit about those aspects of this issue that may not be front and center in the greater debate,” said Jeff Crane, president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, “and just bring those to light so there are some considerations.”

Sportsmen aren’t necessarily opposed to renewable fuels, Inglis of Pheasants Forever said. His group is not pushing for any changes to the RFS but for increased resources for the conservation programs that the Agriculture Department operates.

Pheasants Forever is working on a grant to look at how planting prairie grasses for next-generation biofuels can help contribute to pollinator and quail habitat, according to Inglis.

“At Pheasants Forever, we are very supportive of renewable fuels. … But we know that there’s going to be a price out there that we’re going to pay, and some of that will be environmental and in wildlife,” Inglis said. “And so we’re interested in being engaged on this.”

On the other hand, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), vice chairman of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus, said that he would back completely eliminating the renewable fuel standard.

“I would want to be sure that markets determine the highest and best use of our corn crops,” Wittman said in an interview after yesterday’s briefing. “And if it’s for ethanol, that’s fine. If it’s for food sources, that’s fine. I would like to see market mechanisms. They are always more effective than a requirement.”

The briefing yesterday was sponsored by Pheasants Forever, the Center for Coastal Conservation and the National Marine Manufacturers Association. NMMA also raised concerns yesterday that increased ethanol levels in gasoline could corrode boat engines.

The ethanol industry has disputed studies finding that increased demand for their product has strained the land and argued that the incumbent fossil fuels industry is having more of an effect on land, air and water.

Farmers understand the importance of conservation and clean water, said Chip Bowling, a corn farmer from Maryland and first vice president of the National Corn Growers Association. Though he does not plant corn for ethanol himself, Bowling said that ethanol is a boon for rural communities across the Midwest.

“I know the importance that ethanol and the RFS has made to people like me, to people I buy equipment from, chemical manufacturers, part manufacturers, auto and car sales,” Bowling said. “The RFS is taking depressed rural economics, not so much in the East Coast but in the Midwest, and made those towns viable again.”