Minnesota, US continue wetlands restoration in cooperation with farmers, landowners

The US saw a record jump in enrollment of new land in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and Minnesota farmers and land owners continued to take part in the program.

Land owners enrolled over 272,000 acres in the (WRP) in fiscal year (FY) 2010, the highest single-year enrollment in the program’s history. This is a 52 percent increase over FY 2009 when 179,000 acres were enrolled. There are now more than 2.3 million acres enrolled in WRP nationwide.

“This is an excellent program and Minnesota farm producers have been at

the forefront of participation–we’ve gotten nearly 120,000 acres of sensitive, marginal lands into these wetlands restoration contracts now,” said Greg Schwarz, a farmer in LeSueur and president of Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “The key to this program is that it’s voluntary, and land-owner driven. As farmers, stewardship of the land is one of our primary goals. We know which acres, in balance, would better serve as wildlife habitat than for crop production. This program recognizes that it isn’t the farmer’s burden alone to make these land use changes, but that the general public can support this in order to make it a reality.”

In Minnesota, NRCS concluded 74 WRP contracts in the year that ended September 30, to return 8,375 acres to wetlands. The average contract covered 113 acres, and the average contract amount was $189,821. In total, Minnesota landowners received $14 million in compensation for longterm placement of marginal agricultural lands in the program. Participation in 2008 and 2009 was even higher, and officials anticipated more acreage enrollment in Minnesota in 2010, but the failure of a bonding bill limited the ability of the state to share the cost this year.

Officials agree that farming and conservation have to work in balance, and that turning productive acres into wetlands doesn’t make sense.

“We all eat, and we all benefit from farming’s contribution to Minnesota’s economy,” said Tim Koehler, assistant state conservationist with the Minnesota field office of National Resource Conservation Service. “These WRP contracts, which pay on average $2,000 per acre in Minnesota, reflect the public benefit of restoring fragile, non-productive land to its original wetlands state.”

Schwarz noted, “The stronger prices we’ve seen over the past few years have helped in this process of sorting out productive areas from marginal areas. In the past, the farm program offered set aside programs as a way to keep production from outstripping demand as much as it was to meet environmental goals. The current strong markets assure that more of the acres that go into programs like this really belong there.”

While the program is land owner driven, Koehler noted that applications are prioritized, in order to maximize benefit.

“It’s better to go along wildlife corridors and have areas that are somewhat to have contiguous areas, rather than 30 acres in the middle of 20 square miles of farmland,” said Koehler.

Prairie Potholes along the migratory waterfowl flyway are favored–the area that cuts a diagonal swath from Detroit Lakes down to Albert Lea. The river environments in southeast corner of the state also rate highly in WRP scoring, according to Koehler.

It’s estimated that the US once had 220 million acres of wetlands and currently has about half that amount. The current program caps WRP easements at just over 3 million acres, which leaves about 700,000 more acres that can be enrolled. Natural resource scientists argue that wetlands serve functions of water absorption (flood prevention), and enhance water quality. The issue becomes all the more critical as urban areas across the nation continue to expand impervious surfaces–paved roads and lots, and building rooftops, where open land previously absorbed water. An estimated 30 percent of the seven county Twin Cities metropolitan area is impervious.

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