Wetlands Reserve Program helping to restore bottomland hardwoods in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley

The Wetland Reserve Program was established by Congress in the 1990 Farm Bill and reauthorized in 1996 and 2002. In the 2002 bill, the national aggregate cap for WRP was set at 2,275,000 acres nationwide, a significant increase over the previously authorized maximum of 1,075,000. In addition, the 2002 Farm Bill authorized the continuation of the program by enabling the Secretary of Agriculture to enroll up to 250,000 additional acres annually. As of the end of fiscal year 2003, 1,470,998 acres had been enrolled in WRP in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

WRP is offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and is a voluntary program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. The goal of WRP is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every acre enrolled in the program.

Landowners maintain ownership and access control of their property. Landowners enrolling in WRP also may be reimbursed up to 100% of the restoration costs, depending upon the length of the agreement. The type of wetlands being restored varies from coastal marshes, to prairie potholes, to floodplain forest. In the southern United States, particularly in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV), WRP means not only restoring hydrology, but reforesting enrolled sites with bottomland hardwood tree species.

Popularity of WRP is particularly high in the Lower Mississippi Valley states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois where 42% of the program acreage exists. Nationwide, demand for the program continues to exceed the annual acreage authorization (250,000 acres) by a factor of 3:1.

Historically, the MAV was comprised entirely of bottomland hardwoods, covering some 24 million acres from Southern Illinois to Louisiana. The oak-dominated forest with its intermingled cypress sloughs and brakes provided food and shelter for ducks, particularly mallards and wood ducks, and many other species of wildlife.

The Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley portions of Arkansas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mississippi comprise one of the most important wintering areas in North America, wintering at least 5 million ducks and geese annually. WRP has restored winter flooding on at least 45,000 acres, potentially providing feeding habitat for over 280,000 waterfowl. In Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, WRP has reforested more than 400,000 acres of marginal farmland, providing habitat for a variety of wildlife beginning almost immediately and continuing as the forest grows and matures. For example, White-tailed Deer populations increase on WRP lands soon after trees are planted, and Eastern Wild Turkeys return to the land as the forest matures.

Non-game wildlife benefits of WRP are also substantial. Many species of neo-tropical migrant songbirds are declining throughout their range. Many of these species are “area sensitive” meaning they require large, contiguous tracts of forestland to maintain stable or growing populations. Through WRP reforestation efforts, many existing mature tracts of bottomland hardwood forest have been reconnected, expanding the total forested area, and aiding the recovery of area sensitive species like Swainson’s Warblers and Swallow-tailed Kites. WRP is also important to the recovery of the Louisiana black bear, a threatened species in Louisiana and Mississippi. Black bears are also area sensitive, hence WRP reforestation efforts will contribute to the recovery of their populations. Reforested lands also filter runoff and retain floodwaters, thereby enhancing regional water quality for a variety of fish and mussels, including the endangered pallid sturgeon, the pink muckett and the fat pocketbook mussels.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Southern Regional Office of Ducks Unlimited have cooperated in implementing Wetland Reserve Program in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. For more information on our partnership with NRCS, click here. Additional information on WRP is available here.