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Wetlands Reserve Program adds value to enrolled acreage

Wetlands Reserve Program adds value to enrolled acreage

Story by Beverly Moseley

In the East Texas county of Lamar, Darnells have grazed cattle and grown crops for more than 60 years on land that sweeps down from a hilltop to the waters of Pine Creek. Today, through the U. S. Department of Agriculture�s Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), a portion of that land now provides the wetland habitat needed for wildlife to thrive.

The Wetlands Reserve Program is one alternative for private landowners who are considering different land uses for traditional agricultural production acres.

�The WRP for what it�s intended to be � I think it�s a very good project. I know that as time goes by that they�re destroying a lot of the wetlands in different places for housing development,� said Mike Darnell of Paris.

Darnell knows firsthand the impact urban growth can have. He explained that when water runoff from urban growth was coupled with large amounts of rainfall, more than 150 production acres on his ranch could be underwater.

�It�s so wet and as every year went past they built a lot more houses in town and the runoff got worse every year. We came up with the idea of putting it in this WRP,� Darnell said.

The wetlands program is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture�s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The purpose of the national voluntary program is to restore, protect and enhance wetlands in exchange for private landowners retiring their qualified land from agriculture production.

Wetland functions and value, or benefits, can include improved water quality through filtration of chemicals and sediments, while recharging groundwater or helping reduce flooding. These lands also can protect wildlife habitats, improve aesthetic quality of the land and protect and restore a variety of native plants and flowers.

Under the 2002 Farm Bill, Darnell entered 196 acres into a permanent conservation easement agreement. He enrolled upwards of 400 acres into the program since that initial application.

There is no minimum acreage requirement to enroll in WRP.

NRCS personnel such as Steve Smith, a district conservationist in Paris, worked closely with Darnell providing the technical and financial assistance needed to have the wetlands restored and enhanced.

�[Landowners] get a benefit because we as an agency with a permanent easement provide 100 percent of the restoration costs, so the landowner really benefits,� Smith said. �What we�re doing is we�re restoring those wetland functions, we�re enhancing the wetland or the hydric soils that are already there so we�re actually restoring, enhancing and protecting those wetland functions and values there.�

Smith said there are three benefactors to the program: the landowner, the land and the agency.

�I really believe that when you put those factors together, we�re doing exactly what the NRCS mission is � helping people help the land,� Smith added.

NRCS contracted with Ducks Unlimited to complete a survey of the acreage and to help with the design and layout of the wetland structures. A private contractor built the structures.
Darnell said Ducks Unlimited did a good job of designing the wetlands project.

�Ducks Unlimited has been doing it for many years,� he added.

Smith said that NRCS will visit a wetland area once a year after it�s completed. The agency also will work to provide technical assistance if a problem arises. Smith views the relationship between the agency and the landowner as a partnership.

Program Basics

The program offers three conservation options for enrolled participants.

  • A permanent conservation easement which last in perpetuity. USDA pays 100 percent of the easement value. The agency also can pay up to 100 percent of restoration costs.
  • A 30-year conservation easement. Up to 75 percent of the easement value and restoration costs is paid by the USDA.
  • A restoration cost-share agreement. This option does not require an easement on the enrolled property. It�s an agreement to restore or enhance wetland functions and values.

The USDA can pay up to 75 percent of the restoration costs. The agreement tends to run 10 years.

Under the 2008 Farm Bill, legislative requirements include payment caps of $1,200 an acre for enrolled land under an easement option. This is a one-time lump sum payment. If an easement is valued at $500,000 or more, the total payment or amount due the landowner can be spread out over five years.

Eligible WRP acres are limited to private or Tribal lands and easement lands have to be under the same ownership for at least seven years prior to enrollment into the program.

�That�s the new requirement in the 2008 Farm Bill that you have to own the land seven years before you can get in the program,� Smith said, adding that the ownership requirement used to be 12 months.

There are some use restrictions for enrolled WRP acres.

�You�re not allowed to hay it or graze it. You can�t run cattle on it or cut timber off the wooded area without some type of compatible use agreement from the agency,� Smith said.
Patience and vision are two qualities needed by landowners when entering into a WRP program, Darnell said.

�I would emphasize that it takes a long time and the people need to have some patience,� he said.

He said that landowners need to have a clear vision about how the property will look through the restoration process. For example, how the land looks when it is initially cleared for wetland restoration and enhancement to the following regrowth of plants and brush.

Landowners also need to be able to envision the land�s visual qualities when planted seedlings of trees become large enough to create canopies which can shade out brush, Darnell said.

Land use

Many landowners that take part in WRP share common interests such as hunting or an appreciation of wildlife and habitat conservation.

�I have seen some waterfowl that I haven�t seen before such as tree ducks. I�ve seen several different species of ducks that you won�t see on the creek. We hunted ducks on the creek since I was a kid and you�d see Mallards and wood ducks, but down here you�ll see gadwalls, pintails, redheads, widgeon � a lot of Teal. It�s just a lot of different kinds of waterfowl,� Darnell said.

The variety of waterfowl available for hunting helped draw Harry Lawson from Red River Parish in Louisiana to Darnell�s land. Landowners can still lease out the enrolled acreage for hunting for extra income.

�I like the location and I like to duck hunt,� said Lawson, who runs a commercial cow-calf operation.

When Lawson, an avid duck hunter, was in the position in 2008 to invest in more land, he started looking at WRP acreage. He looked at WRP land in Mississippi that had been enrolled for years and had grown trees on it. This was opposite of Darnell�s land which had a more raw, newly restored look.

Lawson said that by seeing the WRP land in Mississippi, he was able to envision how Darnell�s land would look years down the road. That same year, Darnell sold his WRP enrolled acreage to Lawson, along with the mineral rights.

Everybody seems to have benefitted from the sale. Darnell continues to look after the WRP land that lays below the hill where his house sits and where he has hunted since he was a child.

Lawson now has wetlands reasonably close to his home that he can carry his grandchildren to for duck hunting. It provides the environmental, entertainment and recreational value he wants for his family.

�My grandson and I were on the property recently and he shot a limit of ducks. I was real tickled about that,� Lawson said. �That was something that we were able to experience together.�

For more information on the Wetlands Reserve Program contact your local NRCS office or visit http:www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/wrp.

Wetlands provide the diverse habitat needed for wildlife to thrive.

The Wetlands Reserve Program is one alternative for private landowners who are considering different land uses for traditional agricultural production acres.
Wetlands provide the diverse habitat needed for wildlife to thrive. The Wetlands Reserve Program is one alternative for private landowners who are considering different land uses for traditional agricultural production acres.
Mike Darnell of Lamar County, left, and Steve Smith, NRCS district conservationist, evaluate hardwood seedling trees planted this spring on Wetlands Reserve Program acreage. Wetland habitat surrounds Mike Darnell, left, and Steve Smith, a NRCS district conservationist. Darnell of Lamar County initially entered acreage into a permanent conservation easement agreement in the USDA�s Wetlands Reserve Program in 2001.
Mike Darnell of Lamar County, left, and Steve Smith, NRCS district conservationist, evaluate hardwood seedling trees planted this spring on Wetlands Reserve Program acreage. Wetland habitat surrounds Mike Darnell, left, and Steve Smith, a NRCS district conservationist. Darnell of Lamar County initially entered acreage into a permanent conservation easement agreement in the USDA�s Wetlands Reserve Program in 2001.