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EDITORIAL: Convergence on the topic of stewardship

Stewardship is defined as the responsible oversight and protection of something considered worth preserving.

A couple of recent milestones -- Wisconsin's recall election and widespread wash-outs from our near-record May rainfall -- prompt us to muse on the responsibility of stewardship.

As we nurse our collective hangover from Tuesday's much-watched gubernatorial recall election -- the outcome of which isn't known at this writing -- it bears repeating that whomever will have been chosen to govern Wisconsin should keep stewardship of our monetary resources high on his radar.

While we may be but a tiny backwater in the oceanic world economy, one glance at last week's finance news illustrates how tenuous are economies everywhere. Greek citizens are so nervous they're said to have pulled up to 25 percent of that nation's cash reserves from banks in the form of hard currency last week alone. America's gross government debt was already at 94 percent of our gross domestic product two years ago and continuing to head in the wrong direction. Without an abrupt change in direction, how will we avert disaster?

We can't spend more than we take in and somehow expect someone else to make up the difference.

Changing course here, even the casual gardener should have noticed the transformation occurring on many St. Croix County farm fields over the past couple years. Commodity prices are up so many producers believe it makes sense to bulldoze fence rows, shove back tree lines and take back acreage once placed in state- or federal conservation programs in exchange for higher profits.

On the News' website this week, we've published an outdoor column by Dan Wilcox, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fisheries biologist and project manager who lives near River Falls. Wilcox recalls his college days at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where an old professor defined a big difference between soils and dirt: "Dirt is soil out of place."

"Today there's lots of dirt being generated in the United States by what Aldo Leopold would have called unethical farming practices. In his famous book 'A Sand County Almanac,' Leopold proposed a Land Ethic. An ethic serves to differentiate between social and anti-social conduct. Leopold explained that politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by cooperative mechanisms with an ethical content. This is also a foundation of civilization," writes Wilcox.

"Wisconsin was a pioneer in conservation education and implementation of land and water conservation practices. Despite those efforts, Leopold was puzzled that the existence of obligations over and above self-interest was taken for granted in community enterprises such as roads, schools, churches and baseball teams. Land use ethics, however, were still governed wholly by economic self-interest..."

Next time you take a idyllic drive into the surrounding countryside, notice the many farm fields now tilled to within feet of the roadside, steep slopes devoid of erosion-controlling grass strips and previously fallow fields turned brown by plow and disk. There are several stark examples on Highway 128, north of Glenwood City.

As Wilcox notes, plowing up highly erodible land with bad farming practices and allowing massive erosion to occur destroys the fertility of the soil, sends mud and nutrients down our rivers, and denies use of fertile soil to our descendants. One rainstorm can wash away a millimeter of dirt from the topsoil of a plowed field. That amounts to about 13 tons of topsoil eroded from a hectare (2.5 acres). It would take 20 years or more to replace that loss if left to natural soil-forming processes.

The U.S. is losing soil 10 times faster than the natural rate of soil formation. The economic impact of soil losses in the U.S. is approximately $37 billion each year. About 60 percent of soil that is washed away ends up in lakes, rivers, streams, estuaries and coastal zones, making waterways more prone to flooding and to contamination from fertilizers and pesticides applied to soils.

Look to our nearby Mississippi -- being used as a repository for run-off channeled via the Minnesota River. It's killing the river.

Lumping politics and farming into the same editorial might be a stretch for some, but the topics share a common theme of greed for short-term comfort and putting long-term financial health and future generations at the center of our focus.