Last week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA will accept 3.9 million acres offered under the 43rd Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up. During the extended five-week signup, the Department received nearly 48,000 offers on more than 4.5 million acres of land.

The agency expects to accept another 1.75 million acres this year through a continuous sign-up program targeting highly-erodible land and sensitive wildlife habitat including grasslands and wetlands. These additions will nearly compensate for the 6 million acres USDA expects to fall out of the program this year as contracts expire and farmers return the acreage to production. Vilsack expects this year’s enrollment to total 29.2 million acres, close to the current cap of 32 million acres.

During a time of severe budget deficits, the program understandably falls in the cost-cutting crosshairs as Congress works toward a new Farm Bill. But unlike some government programs, CRP produces measureable benefits, both directly and indirectly.

Any program involves tradeoffs, and CRP has downsides besides its direct costs. By reducing tilled acreage and total crop yields, the program potentially contributes to higher commodity prices and loss of some agricultural employment in rural communities.

However, the list of program benefits is long and compelling. According to the USDA, during 2011 CRP reduced nitrogen and phosphorous losses from farm fields by 623 million pounds and 124 million pounds respectively. The CRP has restored more than two million acres of wetlands and associated buffers and reduces soil erosion by more than 300 million tons per year. The agency also stresses that CRP provides $1.8 billion annually to landowners—dollars that make their way into local economies, supporting small businesses and creating jobs.

Also, by placing vulnerable cropland into conservation, CRP sequesters carbon in plants and soil, and reduces both fuel and fertilizer usage. In 2010, CRP resulted in carbon sequestration equal to taking almost 10 million cars off the road according to USDA.

Besides farmers, the program is extremely popular with sportsman, who benefit from the habitat CRP provides for fish and game animals, and pursuit of their sport generates considerable revenue for rural communities. According to a 1999 study from the USDA’s Economic Research Service, improvements in wildlife viewing and pheasant hunting due to the CRP at that time generated $700 million per year, plus over $35 million per year from improved water-based recreation.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen this effect first-hand, staying in small Midwestern towns during pheasant season, when hotels, motels, restaurants and bars are packed with free-spending hunters. For pheasants in particular, CRP land accounts for much of the nesting habitat and available hunting acreage, and significant reductions to the CRP would discourage many hunters from travelling to these destinations.

Speaking with Field and Stream magazine last week, Vilsack said "(Sportsmen) should take some confidence or relief in the numbers we're announcing today, because it shows this administration is committed to CRP and to the outdoors recreational opportunities CRP creates and enhances. (But) they ought to be engaged in encouraging members, especially in the House, not to reduce our commitment to conservation in the future - mainly because it works."

Most of us agree that deficit reduction is critical, and that significant progress will require tough choices and sacrifices, including cuts to programs we actually like. But in the case of CRP, one would hope Congress will consider the long-term direct and indirect benefits, balanced with the costs and the need for robust agricultural production.