Program Gives Waterlogged Farms Options

The National Wetland Reserve Program could help farmers turn unusable acreage into a protected wetland environment.

by Dani Yokhna
Agriculture wetland
Courtesy Natural Resources Conservation Service/ Tim McCabe
The Wetlands Reserve Program gives landowners the opportunity to preserve land not suited for agriculture.

Farmers with land too wet to farm may be able explore other options while helping wildlife, thanks to the USDA’s Wetlands Reserve Program.

A voluntary program, the WRP offers landowners the opportunity to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on their property. Wetlands encourage a healthy environment, improve water quality, provide habitat for fish and wildlife, reduce flooding, recharge groundwater, and protect biological diversity. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical and financial support to help landowners with their wetland restoration efforts. 

More than 2.3 million acres are currently enrolled in the WRP nationwide, with funds being distributed by state. To encourage wetland conservation in 2011, California has set aside more than $40 million in funding. To enroll in the program for 2011 funding, landowners must apply through their state before the Feb. 15, 2011, deadline.

Who Should Enroll
To be considered for WRP eligibility, the land must previously have been a wetland or must be in an area substantially altered by new hydrologic regimes, such as dams or levees, creating persistent wetland features in the area. The land must have been altered by agricultural production and must be restorable. Land is not excluded based on size; however, ranking often favors larger acreages. 

“Landowners who participate in WRP typically enroll land on their property that is difficult to farm due to prolonged wetness, poor drainage, frequent flooding or other conditions typically limiting for agricultural use, but conducive to wetland restoration,” says Jessica Groves, WRP manager. “If landowners of small-scale farms encounter these issues, the WRP offers the landowner an option to retire and restore those difficult-to-farm areas into beneficial wetland habitat.”

The average size of a WRP easement per state ranges from 28 acres in West Virginia to 1,200 acres in Florida, with 165 acres being the national average easement size. However, the smallest easement size generally offered is 10 acres, Groves says.

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“It may be difficult to retire sufficient acreage on small-scale farms to successfully restore wetland function on the site, and the long-term set aside of many acres may have a disproportionate impact on a smaller-scale agricultural operation,” she says. “In those cases, landowners may opt to participate in the WRP restoration cost-share agreement option to obtain assistance with a smaller-scale wetland restoration project or may turn to other easement programs.”

Pros and Cons
Landowners may restore wetlands with permanent or 30-year easements or 10-year contracts, says Ron Howard, Wisconsin’s NRCS assistant state easement manager.

Participants receive 100 percent of the easement value and 100 percent of the restoration cost for the permanent easement option; participants receive 75 percent of the easement value and 75 percent restoration cost for the 30-year easement option; participants in the 10-year restoration cost-share agreements will receive up to 75 percent of the cost of restoring the project area.

“In most cases, WRP requires the complete cessation of agricultural activities in order to successfully restore the wetland habitat on the property,” Groves says. “The only exception is the new WRP [Grazing Reserved Rights Pilot Program] that allows limited grazing to occur in designated areas where grazing is the most appropriate wetland vegetation-management tool.”

The program allows livestock grazing on enrolled land as part of a wetlands-conservation and grazing-management plan. For example, California NRCS is offering the pilot program in three geographic areas: coastal pastures and wetlands of the North Coast, California vernal pools, and intermountain wetlands of Northeastern California.

“We are emphasizing the value of California’s working lands with the new grazing pilot program,” says Ed Burton, NRCS state conservationist in California. “Science shows wetland conservation and livestock grazing can be compatible on certain landscapes.”

What to Expect
Easements are expected to be closed, or bought from the landowner, within one year of being enrolled into the program. The WRP aims to have a piece of land’s wetland functions and values restored to pre-agriculture conversion standards within three years of closing the easement. 

“The main objective for the land would no longer be agriculture production,” says Howard. “The long-term implications will be restored wetlands functions and values (of a once-degraded wetland) that support desirable native plant and animal species.”


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