By Doug Leier

Whether we like it or not, it's part of human nature to take for granted things that become part of our lives or benefit us over the long term. The only way we can truly appreciate the value of what we have, is to have less of it.

In the outdoor world, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program is a fitting example, and wildlife agencies and conservation organizations have tried to relay that message for years. In fact, just by reading the acronym CRP, it's likely that some readers have probably lost a bit of interest, and would rather read a fall hunting preview or learn about some management issue the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is trying to address.

We have heard about the value of CRP to wildlife and related outdoor activities for years, perhaps to the point that some people tune out the message. Now, however, the message is a little different. A new general sign-up, the first in several years, is in progress. Instead of talking about all the land that will come out of the program, we can talk about the potential for new enrollments.

The Conservation Reserve Program originated in the mid-1980s, and it didn't take hunters long to begin seeing the benefits, first with pheasants and deer, and eventually waterfowl. In addition, about a decade later the Game and Fish Department began piggy-backing a walk-in hunting access program - Private Land Open to Sportsmen or PLOTS - to CRP acres.

Like free pop refills at a fast-food restaurant, CRP and PLOTS became an annual expectation, though wildlife managers could see challenging times ahead when contracts would start expiring in 2007 and beyond.

On top of that, a few years ago commodity prices shot up, prompting increased land rental rates that in many areas outpaced CRP payments for landowners. Since 2007 North Dakota has lost just under a million acres of CRP. Now, the state has a chance to get some of that back, either in terms of contract extensions or new enrollments.

Which brings me to the current sign-up open through Aug. 27. The great thing about CRP is that it is voluntary. Landowners can choose whether to participate, based on the potential to improve their bottom line over time. Even then, acceptance into the program is not a given, as each tract is evaluated and ranked on its environmental benefits. Offering land for enrollment is more like a first step than an expected result.

Landowners who have an interest in learning more about the current CRP sign-up have an array of technical support available from local USDA staff to Game and Fish private lands biologists, Pheasants Forever farm bill biologists and Ducks Unlimited conservation program biologists.

In 2007 the prairie of North Dakota had 3.4 million acres of CRP. It's tough to imagine, given current economic factors, surpassing 3 million acres again. However, if landowner interest is high and CRP rental rates are competitive cash rent and commodity prices, the state could at least realize some modest gains instead of continued losses.

It's been four years since the last CRP open enrollment, and no one knows when or if there will be a next time. The current positive development is one that could shape our expectations for years to come. Now's the time to keep the conversation going and make sure that everyone who might have an interest in the sign-up is aware of the possibilities.