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Agricultural News

More Producers Find Wetlands Reserve Program the Right Answer to Help Their Conservation Goals

Mon, 10 Jun 2019 12:48:19 CDT

More Producers Find Wetlands Reserve Program the Right Answer to Help Their Conservation Goals What does the perfect answer look like for landowner Kim Biggs?

It has big bluestem grass, little bluestem and indiangrass. Some days a wild turkey or a whitetail deer is on or nearby it, or a mallard is circling in from above it. So, Biggs is asked what the question was that generated this perfect answer.

The energy businessman who lives in the Oklahoma City metro area had acquired some land north of Perry in northern Oklahoma. He didn’t know any of his neighboring farmers and ranchers, but he had a question, “What can I do with this?”

The short answer to that led to the perfect answer: The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) of the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“I called the NRCS office and talked to Rusty,” Biggs, of Summit Resources Management LLC, said of Rusty Peterson, USDA NRCS Resource Conservationist for Noble County. “He said, ‘You ought to think about putting that in a Wetlands Reserve Program. I said, ‘Man, that sounds perfect.’ I wasn’t a duck hunter, I hunted deer and turkey, but these last three years I’ve hunted ducks and it’s a blast, I really enjoy it. I just kind of like coming up here and getting out of the City.”

Peterson said Biggs’ choice has been an ideal fit for conservation as well. “He’s always been willing to sit down with me and we talk about what we would like to do,” Peterson said. “He says what he would like to do, and we can usually come to an agreement. He’s been willing to do a prescribed burn on the place, plant trees and a lot more. He has family that use the place also, so they spend time out there. He’s been a good land manager.”

What is WRP?

Steve Barner, the WRP Specialist for USDA NRCS based in McAlester, is equal or greater of a fan of the program than Biggs. Barner can talk at length about “the astonishing things I have seen over the last 19 years of seeing cropland fields turned back into their original native state and the explosion of wildlife and water quality improvements that occur as soon as we restore wetlands and the wetland vegetation starts growing in the wetland.”

“A prime example would be on the red soils areas of Oklahoma,” he said. “The ponds and creeks are usually murky year-round, but if there is a wetland anywhere close, the water will be clear as long as it is not disturbed.”

The purpose of Wetlands Reserve Enhancement (WRE)/WRP is to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands on eligible private or Tribal lands while maximizing wildlife habitat benefits. The objectives of WRP are to protect, restore, and enhance the functions and values of wetland ecosystems to attain:

- Habitat for migratory birds and other wetland-dependent wildlife, including threatened and endangered species and species of concern.

- Protection and improvement of water quality.

- Attenuation of floodwater.

- Recharge of ground water.

- Protection and enhancement of open space and aesthetic quality.

- Protection of native flora and fauna contributing to the Nation's natural heritage.

- Contribution to educational and scientific scholarship.

- Two-year ownership is required.

Eligible landowners voluntarily apply for the WRE and if the site is eligible, a ranking score is given to the site. All applications are competing for the annual allocation that the NRCS receives from National Headquarters. Permanent easements are the most common form of easement request by landowners. A 30-year easement is also an option as well as contracts with Native American Tribes. The NRCS purchases specific rights to the property utilizing a Warranty Easement Deed and landowners retain specific rights that the NRCS does not purchase – The Right of Trespass, quiet enjoyment and minerals.” Permanent easements in Oklahoma are for perpetuity. “The biggest change I see is people buying WRP easements strictly for recreation/hunting with little or no interest in traditional agriculture except those practices that benefit wildlife,” Barner stated.

Barner said he has 270 easements closed covering 61,000 acres in 44 counties that he oversees. In some cases, they are owned by individuals and in other cases by an LLC. He said it’s a good option for many whether their focus is hunting, farming, or ranching or a combination of the these.

When asked what types of land or situation is often best for this, Barner said, “Ag lands that have had hydrology manipulation, ditched, levees, diversion terraces, subsurface tiled, straightened (dredged) creeks and rivers, playas, upland depressions etc. With that being said, onsite investigations by the NRCS is critical because many of the old ag fields in eastern Oklahoma have been abandoned long enough that the hydrology manipulation may still be in place, but the field may have grown up in timber and the drainage will not be visible from photography, so a field visit will need to happen.”

An owner who is taking good care of the easement will usually work with the NRCS to implement the conservation plan and utilize the Compatible Use Authorization (CUA) to conduct conservation practices that the NRCS has purchased the rights to but can allow the landowner to apply practices that meet the goal of the easement. NRCS will purchase the easement, develop the conservation plan with all appropriate designs and worksheets, pay 100 percent of the restoration cost for permanent easements and pay 75 percent of the restoration cost for 30-year easements.

The landowner can participate at numerous levels if they so desire or the participation can be very low. The best sites for wildlife have very active landowners with regular reoccurring contact with the NRCS. "Usually the first landowner on WRP is an ag producer that has land that is poorly suited for ag due to flooding, ponding, heavy clay soils that make ag profits difficult,” Barner said. “NRCS purchases the easement and the monetary benefit allows the ag operator the opportunity to implement conservation on the land. Often if the land owner is not a wildlife enthusiast they will sell the land to someone more interested in wildlife. Wetland restoration is probably the greatest/fastest way to apply conservation and see the almost immediate benefit to the widest variety of wildlife species, game and non-game.”

He added, “When you include native grass buffers, bottomland forest buffers, moist soils management, prescribed fire and allow a diversity of wetland habitats and inundation periods you can restore, temporary, seasonal, open-water, shrub/scrub, semi-permanent, permanent, submerged, emergent etc. wetlands. The amount of wildlife, migratory and locally dependent species that will utilize the WRE/WRP easements is conservation at its best. Also, water quality, flood retention, groundwater recharge, plant diversity, pollination and research are all a part of these and more are the result of private landowners voluntarily working with the NRCS and partners to restore degraded wetlands.”

In this case

Peterson said if he comes across a landowner, who says, “What are my opportunities?” he looks at the land and if he feels it will fit the program, he explains the benefits and the responsibilities that come with the WRP.

“When I looked at this land of Kim’s, I mentioned that with the drainage ditches, ‘We have an opportunity to build wetlands out here,’” Peterson said. “I explain that the landowner needs to stay on top of invasive species, musk thistle control, cedar control, honey locust control, those type of things. They are responsible if they want food plots or to change water levels for their ducks. They would need to talk to us and follow a plan for doing the maintenance, pulling the board for moist soil management. Kim has liked it so well, he’s put in an application for another piece of property he owns.”

On this particular May morning, a spring wind that is more of a whisper than a shout comes across the wetlands. Biggs looks through his sunglasses, takes a drink of coffee from his silver Yeti, and then offers more reasons why this was a good decision for him.

“I’ve got two boys and five grandkids and four of them are boys, so they’ll use this when they get a little older,” Biggs said. “My son took a picture out here one morning when the sun was coming up and the ducks were out there, it was so pretty. I also have a picture with five or six tom turkeys fanned out and the colors are brilliant. I put it in my little cabin over there. I’d never seen a picture that pretty. I just enjoy getting out. I come up here one or two times a week it seems like, just doing something. This is the perfect program for me.”

For more information about this and other NRCS programs please contact your local NRCS office for assistance. Offices and staff are located in every county in Oklahoma.

Source - USDA/NRCS-Oklahoma



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