Better wetlands can benefit many
The Wetlands Reserve Program, a voluntary, incentive-based USDA program designed to help farmers and ranchers restore and protect wetlands on land that’s too wet to farm, has grown into what some people are calling one of the most successful of a suite of federal conservation programs.
Authorized in the 1990 Farm Bill, WRP started as a pilot program in nine states in 1992 and expanded to 20 states in 1994; it was made available nationwide in 1995. Each May is designated as American Wetlands Month.
In the fewer than 20 years the government’s largest wetlands restoration program has been available, more than 2.3 million acres of wet ag lands have been restored or enhanced as wetlands. Last year’s 272,000 acres were the highest enrollment of any year since the program began.
“WRP has proven to be a great option for farmers trying to economically produce row crops in wet areas or fields. Through the easement process offered by WRP, these farmers receive financial compensation for land that is difficult, risky and expensive to farm,” says Larry Beeler, assistant state conservationist for programs for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service. “And at the same time these wetlands provide permanent habitat for wildlife and improve water quality. It’s a win for the farmer and it’s a win for wildlife.”
• Farmers and ranchers have put 2.3 million acres of wet farmland into WRP.
• Wetlands Reserve Program enrollment is still active after nearly 20 years.
• Check with your NRCS office if you want to consider WRP for land too wet to farm.
Easement payments averaged more than $3,000 an acre in Iowa in 2010 contracts. USDA has placed rate caps on WRP that vary by soils, state and region. In Iowa, for example, caps are above $5,000 an acre on some high-producing croplands, but below $1,500 on other land. The 2008 Farm Bill capped the program at a little more than 3 million acres, and restricted easements to land that has been owned for at least seven years, among other changes.
What hasn’t changed is the widespread benefits of wetlands. They’re about as good as it gets as habitat for wildlife. In fact, U.S. wetlands support nearly 200 species of amphibians, more than 5,000 plant species and a third of all native bird species.
Besides wildlife benefits, research has shown that wetlands trap 50% of dissolved phosphate, 70% of dissolved nitrates and up to 40% of dissolved organic nitrogen.
NRCS acreage figures show the early pilot states — California, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina and Wisconsin — account for nearly 900,000 acres, or more than a third of the U.S. total. Louisiana and Arkansas lead in acres with more than 200,000 each. Five other states, Florida, Mississippi, Minnesota, California and Missouri, each have more than 100,000 acres enrolled. Most Corn Belt states have more than 50,000 acres in the program.
For more information, see www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/wrp.
Betts writes from Johnston.
This article published in the April, 2011 edition of WALLACES FARMER.