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Wetlands and the Farm Bill

Your support will be needed to save key agricultural conservation programs in upcoming legislation
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by Scott Yaich, Ph.D.

At this time of year I am frequently asked, "How are things looking up north on the breeding grounds?" DU members understand that the number of ducks they see in the fall is to some degree determined by wetland conditions on the breeding grounds the previous spring. Viewed continentally, more wetlands mean more ducks, and fewer wetlands mean fewer ducks.

Many of the wetlands that are most important to waterfowl exist on agricultural landscapes. That's why the "Conservation Title" of the Farm Bill is a major focus of Ducks Unlimited's public policy work. The next version of the Farm Bill is anticipated in 2012, and as in years past, this legislation will be of historical significance to wetlands and waterfowl.

While Farm Bill conservation programs have been instrumental in slowing the loss of wetlands important to waterfowl in recent decades, that wasn't always the case. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, the Farm Bill included what was known as the Agriculture Conservation Program, which recognized tile and open-ditch drainage as "conservation" practices, contributing to national wetland losses of 550,000 acres per year. Approximately 87 percent of the 14.9 million acres of wetlands lost in the United States during that period was converted to cropland.

The tide began to turn in favor of wetlands in 1972 with the passage of the Clean Water Act (CWA), which provided much-needed protection for many of the nation's wetlands. Complementing these protections, each Farm Bill since 1985 has included several key conservation programs that have dramatically slowed wetland loss to agricultural conversion.

In addition, these programs have been the catalyst for many significant partnerships between the conservation and farming communities that have conserved millions of acres of prime waterfowl habitat on agricultural landscapes across America.

But these innovative and cost-effective conservation programs are approaching a crossroads in the upcoming 2012 Farm Bill. Debates over spending are affecting everything in which the federal government is involved, including agriculture and conservation. In this political climate, Farm Bill conservation programs could suffer significant cuts if hunters, anglers, and other stakeholders don't make their voices heard on their behalf. With that in mind, let's take a look at three of the agricultural conservation programs that most directly benefit wetlands and waterfowl, as well as how you can help support these programs in the upcoming debate over the next Farm Bill.

Wetlands Reserve Program

The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), administered by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), is the Farm Bill program that is most directly focused on wetland restoration. Created in 1990, WRP is a voluntary, incentive-based program in which landowners enroll wetlands previously impacted by agriculture in perpetual or 30-year easements, or in 10-year restoration agreements. Converted wetlands are often flood prone and marginally productive as cropland. WRP provides landowners with the financial and technical assistance required to restore these former wetlands on the landscape.

WRP has been tremendously popular among farmers and other private landowners (see "WRP is at Greatest Risk"). Of the 2.45 million acres currently enrolled in the program, about 80 percent is permanently protected with perpetual easements. In 2010 alone the NRCS worked with more than 1,400 farmers to enroll a one-year record of 272,762 acres.
WRP is at Greatest Risk Despite the popularity of the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) among farmers and its many contributions to the public good, the program currently faces great challenges in Congress. With $119 million already cut from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 budget, WRP's funding authority ends with FY 12. If new funding isn't found, WRP could go from an FY 10 budget of $613 million and restoring 272,000 acres of wetlands to zero dollars and acres in FY 12. Waterfowl hunters and other conservationists must act now to save this important wetlands conservation program by contacting their elected representatives in Congress.

Restoring wetlands on WRP land not only benefits landowners financially but also U.S. taxpayers by reducing the acreage of flood-prone land eligible for subsidized crop insurance and disaster payments. In addition, wetland restoration prevents soil erosion, improves water quality, and reduces flooding. Every acre of cropland restored through WRP conserves tons of soil that otherwise would have washed into adjacent wetlands, lakes, and streams.

Of course, WRP has been a windfall for waterfowl as well as landowners. Approximately 26 percent of the nation's WRP acreage is in the highly flood-prone Mississippi Alluvial Valley of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In this region, wetlands restored by WRP along with flooded agricultural fields provide vital wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. In California, where more than 117,000 acres of wetlands have been restored via this program, a recent study found that WRP habitat helps attract and hold waterfowl regionally, further demonstrating how working agricultural lands and restored wetlands complement one another to benefit ducks. And in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin, where approximately 95 percent of the region's original wetlands have been lost, research indicates that 80,000 acres of wetlands restored by WRP provide nearly 12 percent of the wetland foods available to migrating waterfowl in this key midcontinent staging area.

Breeding waterfowl in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) have also benefitted from WRP, with more than 179,000 acres enrolled in the Dakotas and Montana to date. These restored wetlands are a vital component of the Duck Factory's breeding habitat and also provide important ecosystem services for people. For example, one wetland acre can store millions of gallons of floodwater. Restored wetlands on WRP and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands in the PPR store runoff that otherwise could contribute to downstream flooding.

In this way, wetlands restored through WRP and other Farm Bill conservation programs benefit downstream riverside communities in addition to farmers and ducks. 

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