Prairie Pothole Wetland and Grassland Retention Project
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Regional Conservationists Office
This unique Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) landscape, known for its diverse wetlands and large areas of native prairie, provides critical habitat for many of the nation’s migratory birds, including grassland birds. Maintaining wetlands and grasslands in the region provide diverse benefits, including water quality protection, potential flood reduction, carbon sequestration and enhanced wetland and wildlife habitat.
Recent expansion of corn and soybean production in the PPR, located in the upper Midwest and Northern Plains, has created new pressures on grasslands and wetlands. Several factors are driving the expansion and intensity of crop production, including commodity prices, warming weather patterns, and improved crop varieties that allow for the growing of more corn and soybeans. These drivers create short-term incentives to convert existing grasslands -- both native prairie or expiring Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage -- and some wetlands to crop production.
Significant conversion of these working agricultural lands can have adverse impacts on water quality, wildlife habitat and water quantity in the region.
To stem the tide of conversion, NRCS is offering farmers and ranchers various financial and technical options to consider before they convert grasslands or wetlands to cropland. These options will provide farmers and ranchers with economically viable alternatives to protect their grasslands and wetlands. Protecting the soil, water and wildlife habitat resources of the region is compatible with making a living off the land.
This project will occur in portions of eastern North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, central Iowa and western Minnesota in Fiscal Year 2014. Montana will participate only in the carbon trading portion of the project this fiscal year.
Eligible farmers and ranchers can use NRCS’s financial assistance and technical guidance to implement selected conservation practices that benefit grasslands and wetlands through the following programs and grants:
NRCS will use various conservation programs to commit up to $35 million over three years to help producers protect the grasslands and wetlands in the PPR. The multi-phased project includes:
- Targeted Delivery of EQIP
NRCS will offer enhanced conservation opportunities for producers to implement conservation practices to improve management on grazing lands and provide wildlife habitat. Up to $30 million over three years will be allocated for this phase of the project. This funding is different from the general EQIP because it will offer additional years of payment (beyond the current three-year limit) for prescribed grazing and other management practices that will help farmers and ranchers transition expiring CRP acres into working hayland or grasslands. NRCS’ goal is to help farmers and ranchers improve more than 45,000 acres of grazing acreage and more than 120,000 acres of wetland and wildlife habitat.
- Carbon Credits for Avoided Conversion
NRCS and Ducks Unlimited (DU) will expand a successful CIG project that occurred in six counties in North Dakota. DU developed a carbon crediting protocol for the avoided conversion of grasslands using conservation easements that proved successful in those counties As a result, NRCS is developing a partnership agreement with DU that will expand the project into South Dakota and Montana. When producers express interest in maintaining and/or restoring their grasslands, NRCS will direct them to contact DU to consider participating in carbon markets to gain extra income.
- Continuation of the North Central Wetland Conservation Initiative (NCWCI)
NRCS is devoting an additional $3 million in technical assistance to help Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota streamline the certified wetland determinations process and reduce a backlog of these determinations. The extra technical assistance funding is designed to improve technical consistency and efficiencies that will reduce the response time for these determinations.
- Agricultural Wetland Mitigation Banking
Development and use of wetland mitigation banks is one way for agricultural producers to comply with Wetland Conservation Compliance (WCC) provisions, but their use is not widespread. NRCS will use CIG to solicit projects that could develop wetland mitigation banking options in the PPR.
- Water Bank Program (WBP)
NRCS plans to offer farmers and ranchers enrollment opportunities in WBP in Fiscal Year 2014. Through this program, farmers and ranchers receive annual payments, through a 10-year rental agreement, for conserving and protecting wetlands and adjacent lands that may otherwise be used for annual crop production or other activities that require drainage.
Benefits to Producers
This project will offer farmers, ranchers and partners various financial and technical assistance opportunities that can be adopted voluntarily to limit the conversion of grasslands and wetlands to annual crop production.
Using existing authorities under EQIP and CIG, the states can immediately assist interested producers in exploring these various options to maintain and restore their grasslands and/or wetlands.
The project also will spur innovation by encouraging farmers, ranchers and partners to explore alternative income streams such as carbon trading in selected areas in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota.