In battle to save US farmlands, legal ground is being won

In the battle to save America's farmlands, 3 million acres are being lost every year. But important legal ground is being won. Following up on the release of a thick bundle of studies last month, the National Agricultural Lands Study (NALS) brought agricultural experts together in Chicago this week to compare notes.

The objective of the meeting is to add to the impressive list of gains whereby:

* Every state except Georgia and Kansas has adopted preferential tax laws to help protect farmers and their land.

* Some 16 states have enacted various types of right-to-farm legislation, protecting farmers against government regulations and private nuisance lawsuits.

* Some 270 counties and municipalities now use agricultural zoning measures to protect farmland from development.

* Several states are experimenting with purchase or transfer of development rights to ease the pressure on farmland.

These steps show the progress made in the face of farmers' traditional insistence that putting zoning or other limits on their land erodes their constitutional property rights.

At the Chicago conference, two former members of President Carter's Cabinet -- Cecil D. Andrus (Department of the Interior) and Bob Bergland (Agriculture) -- were the chief advocates of taking further action. But farmers here agreed with federal, state, and local officials on the urgent need to slow down the loss of a "finite and irreplaceable" natural resource -- farmland. Most concluded that the US Department of Agriculture is being conservative in estimating the loss at only 3 million acres a year as farmland in every state is covered over by such projects as housing, shopping centers, airports, and even artificial lakes.

Even the most cautious agreed that instead of losing farmland, the United States must increase productive cropland by between 80 million and 140 million acres over the next 20 years to keep pace with projected domestic and world food needs.

Mr. Andrus told the Monitor that his own insistence on locally initiated plans to protect farmland, rather than federal land-use planning, goes back to his years as governor of Idaho and was reinforced by his four years as secretary of the interior. He still staunchly defends "each person's right to do whatever he chooses with his own property as long as it doesn't have an adverse impact on his neighbor."

Yet Andrus fully endorsed the NALS recommendations. These call for protecting farmland through a combination of state and local incentives, backed by federal endorsement for protecting farmland as a national priority. Moreover , he came to the conference as spokesman for the American Farmland Trust, a private nonprofit organization set up to protect farmland.

Key to protecting farmland without trespassing on farmers' rights, Andrus explained, is a system of incentives operated by "state, local, and private organizations." He sees private groups such as the farmland trust as vital middlemen. Such groups are already active in several states, he said, explaining the importance of protecting farmland and offering farmers new options, including "ways to guarantee that their land will be farmed in perpetuity."

One new alternative being offered to farmers is the transfer of their development rights.By donating or selling their right to convert their land for nonfarming uses, farmers often can reduce their taxes substantially. Once rid of development rights, the farmer is also free from the pressures that force the land price far above its agricultural value.

Andrus thinks the removal of development pressures will have a reinforcing effect. One current problem is that farmers begin to "mine" their land when its agricultural future seems limited. Instead, when the agricultural future of an area is guaranteed, then farmers return to good management practices that keep their land productive, he said.

Andrus argued that the increasingly popular plans to protect farmland through state and local initiatives "fit right in with the Reagan government's philosophy" of less government and more budget-cutting. Instead of asking for more government help, Andrus ask only that the federal government cut back on costly programs that have threatened farmland through subsidizing housing tracts , building dams that flood large stretches of prime farmland, and the like.

Mr. Bergland, for his part, called for "local oversight on all federal activity." Local groups, he said, "must seize the initiative, because they can establish the values that are acceptable in the community" whether in protecting farmland or having the final word on federal water, sewer, highway, or airport projects.

Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the stree ts of every city in America.m William Jennings Bryan

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