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Exploring Opportunities for Playas in the Panhandle and South Plains

Exploring Opportunities for Playas in the Panhandle and South Plains

Story by Quenna Terry

Texas High Plains landowner Joe Faulkenberry enrolled  96 acres in the USDA-NRCS Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) in 2006.Playas exist in the wide open spaces of the Llano Estacado on the High Plains and South Plains regions. They are a feature of the landscape that can provide landowners with opportunities that have yet to be fully explored.

The importance and significance of playas has been known since the time of early explorers, settlers and military expeditions. It�s estimated that over 20,000 playas dot the land in this region.

USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) designed to restore ecological and aesthetic functions and values such as water quality, water quantity and wildlife habitat.

NRCS wildlife biologist Manuel De Leon said, �Wetland restoration hasn�t typically been sought or pursued in the Playa region in the state because not all Playas meet the wetland criteria, however, we encourage landowners to consider the program as a tool to restore wetland ecological functions.�

�Many Playas may be eligible for the program and we want landowners with playas or wetlands to consider the WRP to enhance their property.�

One characteristic of these unique depressions are their bowl or saucer shape. According to the NRCS, wetlands are characterized by the presence of hydrology, hydrophytic vegetation and hydric soils. Restoration of these wetlands in the Playa region could involve for example terrace or tail-water pit removal to restore hydrology as demonstrated by Panhandle landowner Joe Faulkenberry.

Mr. Faulkenberry has been participating in WRP since 2006, when he enrolled 96 acres of his Hutchinson County farm.. He said the program fit his needs and operation to restore the wetland area that was surrounded by permanent grass in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

�I wanted to bring the Playa acres back to its original state, but I wasn�t going to do the work on my own.� said Faulkenberry. �WRP offered what I needed to restore and manage the acres.�

Restoration treatment on the Faulkenberry farm was diverse. In addition to filling in the tail-water pit and removing the diversion terrace, pipe structures were left to supply water for wildlife. NRCS also funded a permanent fence, around the playa. Faulkenberry worked with the local NRCS office district conservationist Richard Bennett through the process. Together, they were successful in planning the restoration and re-establishing desired plant communities in the disturbed areas.

In this case, Faulkenberry chose the permanent easement option, giving NRCS access to the land. �My decision to put my land in the program didn�t mean it would become a public hunting site. I still have control of the hunting rights on the property,� said Faulkenberry.

�I�ve been surprised at the number of white-tailed deer and mule deer we�ve spotted and it�s not uncommon to see up to 80 pheasant in and around the Playa. I�m now beginning to see a future for the wildlife on this land.�

In the 2008 Farm Bill, changes in the process were made for determining the easement value, directing NRCS to pay the lowest of:

  • the fair market value of the land according to the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practices or an area-wide market survey.

  • the geographic area rate cap as determined by the Secretary of Agriculture; or

  • the landowner�s offer.

  • Playas are one of three areas being targeted for wetland restoration projects under WRP. Several options are available for landowners to consider. To participate in the WRP, landowners are required to have control of the land for seven years prior to enrollment. One option offers a partnership between NRCS and the landowners to manage the land. By doing so, the landowner agrees to sell the NRCS a 30 year easement and receive a one-time payment. NRCS will fund full restoration up to 100 percent of the cost to include such practices as fencing and buffer plantings. Landowners can continue to manage the easement acres and retain the right to lease the property for recreational purposes. Participants� will also have permitting options for grazing to meet restoration needs. All improvements or activities on the land will meet the standards and specifications through NRCS management.

    Additionally, NRCS provides options for a 30-year easement and 30-year contract enrollments. Finally, landowners can select a restoration cost-share agreement. Both of these program choices will pay up to 75 percent of the costs.

    Texas NRCS expects to enroll 72,000 acres in the program within the next three years.

    Landowners have the opportunity to find out if their playas are eligible from an NRCS field visit. Anyone interested in the WRP program should contact their local NRCS representative in their local county USDA Service Center.

    (L to R) Richard Bennett, retired NRCS district conservationist and Manuel DeLeon, NRCS wildlife biologist for the High Plains region provided technical assistance in the planning and restoration of the Playa lake on Faulkenberry�s farm in Hutchinson County.

    Landowner Joe Faulkenberry said the WRP program fit his operation and needs to restore the Playa wetland that is surrounded by permanent grass in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

    Joe Faulkenberry�s playa functions in drought and wet conditions that are typical of the High Plains region of the state. During a drought, the wetland has a variety of plants common to the Playa wetlands that provides breeding, nesting, and feeding habitat for various wildlife species.