Perverse incentives on wildlife habitat

The New York Times has a long article today about the progressive loss of pheasant habitat in Iowa, and the resulting negative impact on the hunting industry in that state (“As Pheasants Disappear, Hunters in Iowa Follow”). The problems described there are more widespread than Iowa, and they derive in large part from government policy.

The overall amount of land enrolled in the Agriculture Departments Conservation Reserve Program has dipped to 29.5 million acres from a peak of 36.7 million in 2007. Under the program, the government pays owners a certain rate to plant parts of their land with grass and other vegetation that create a wildlife habitat. Land in the program is most suitable for pheasants and other upland game, and owners often make it available for hunting. But as the price of corn and other crops has risen, so have land values, and the rates paid by the government under the program have been unable to keep up.

The article never mentions that the primary reason for increases in the price of corn is government subsidies and incentives for ethanol production. In other words, one government payout is working to destroy habitat while another government program is trying to preserve it. In the last few years, the net effect of government intervention has favored plowing over conservation.