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Wetland Easement Benefits Migratory Birds

Dale Schmidt's restored wetlandMany fields have a trouble spot, but for one Kansas landowner—it was an entire field. Year after year, Dale Schmidt’s 144-acre field was prone to flooding, often resulting in silt being deposited on his neighbors fields. “For years, we could never grow anything,” says Schmidt. “So if the land floods more than it grows a crop, why not let it go back to being a wetland.”

Schmidt contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In 2010, he enrolled the land into a permanent easement through the former Wetlands Reserve Program. The 2014 Farm Bill merged this easement program with others to form the Agricultural Conservation Easements Program, or ACEP, to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands.

Birds enjoy the restored wetlandInstead of fighting the inevitable flooding and trying to irrigate the field for crops, Schmidt worked with NRCS to restore his problem field to its former condition, a wetland. Today, the wetland holds water all year long. Historically, Schmidt’s field, located east of Inman, Kansas, is known for being a major flyway for migrating waterfowl.

Schmidt references the movie “Field of Dreams” in describing his wetland. “Build it and they will come,” says Schmidt. “That’s exactly what we did here. The field is a favorite stop for migrating waterfowl and other shore birds. “I’ve seen every type of duck and geese species and I couldn’t be happier.” He’s seen blue-winged teal, greater egret, quail, sandhill crane, snow goose, and even bobcats. Even during the drought years, he kept the pheasant population intact.

Great egret sighted“Wetlands benefit migratory birds, other wildlife and plants,” said Blake McLemore, NRCS District Conservationist, McPherson. “Our goal was to restore the wetland and grow the migratory water fowl population. We are seeing significant results,” he adds.

According to McLemore, when a property is enrolled in ACEP, the landowner retains ownership and responsibility for the land, controls access to the land, and the right to hunt, fish or other appropriate recreational uses compatible with the wetland functions.

Grassed dikeSchmidt has worked with NRCS to install a wealth of conservation practices. He installed a water control structure that floods large parts of his field for migrating birds during the winter. He seeded native grasses to control erosion and enhance wildlife habitat. A grassed dike located around his field protects his neighboring fields from being flooded. Schmidt’s only maintenance at the present time is to control noxious weeds and invasive plants each year. Schmidt said it’s been a great move to restore this field to its historical condition. He’s made a significant impact on water conservation as he no longer has to pump water for cropland irrigation, saving several hundred acre-feet of water annually.

Schmidt has partnered with local organizations, such as Duck Unlimited and Pheasants Forever to provide hunting opportunities on his land for Kansas youth and their mentors. “I want to provide a good hunting experience for them,” says Schmidt.

Wetland restored to its historical conditionFor Schmidt this project went well because of the partnership with NRCS. “This was so much simpler than I ever thought,” he said. “It turned out better than I could have imagined. For me, it’s been a dream to have something restored to its original, pristine condition and it allows me to come out here when I’m seeking a sanctuary.”

ACEP consolidates three former NRCS easement programs (Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, Grassland Reserve Program, and Wetlands Reserve Program) into two components—one that protects farmlands and grasslands and another that protects and restores agricultural wetlands. Last week, USDA announced its plans to award to $328 million this year to private landowners across the nation to restore 32,000 acres of prime farmland, 45,000 acres of grasslands, and 52,000 acres of wetlands.