March 2, 2012
On Friday, March 2, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Initiative to preserve wetlands and grasslands through a continuous signup process for up to one million acres of land targeted in the three following area:
• New Continuous Pollinator Practice – up to 100,000 acres
A new continuous practice to permit producers to develop pollinator habitat for many pollinator species.
• Increased Acreage for Wetland Restoration – up to 200,000 acres
Two practices will expand that are designed to restore wetlands that are both within a 100-year floodplain and outside of a100-year floodplain. Last year’s floods were a strong reminder of the value of wetlands in absorbing storm water and slowing run-off.
• Restoration of Critical Grassland Ecosystems
This initiative targets areas that can restore important habitats to protect threatened and/or endangered species, candidate species, or species of significant social/economic importance. The restoration work would be done through the following existing practices and sub-initiatives:
Increased Acreage for State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement (SAFE) – up to 400,000 acres:
SAFE practices provide the flexibility to meet the specific needs of high-value wildlife species in a participating state or region through higher-quality habitat. SAFE projects would be developed at the state and local level.
Increased Acreage for Duck Nesting Habitat – up to 150,000 acres:
Restores wetlands and develops nesting habitat in areas deemed as the most critical waterfowl areas. Currently, there are 175,000 acres enrolled in this practice.
Increased Acreage for Upland Bird Habitat Buffers – up to 150,000 acres:
Provides extremely valuable habitat for upland birds such as quail and pheasants. Currently, there are 244,000 acres enrolled in this initiative.
CRP contracts on about 6.5 million acres are scheduled to expire in September 2012, while prices for commodity crops have remained near record highs. To encourage farmers to sign up acres for this initiative, the Farm Service Agency will increase signing incentive payments from $150 to $200 per acre. This increase will apply to most of the continuous CRP practices and to the enrollment of wetlands, pollinator habitat and upland bird habitat.
In addition, Congress is considering a significant reduction in CRP acreage in the next Farm Bill. Currently, the Farm Bill authorizes a total CRP enrollment of 32 million acres. A number of wildlife groups issued statements approving the targeting of CRP to specific conservation goals in the face of possible cuts to the program’s acreage.
This is the third recent USDA announcement about CRP in recent weeks. Recently, USDA announced two additional CRP sign-ups: a four-week general CRP sign-up beginning on March 12 and ending on April 6 and a continuous sign-up for Highly Erodible Cropland to begin this summer.
The Highly Erodible Cropland (HEL) initiative will provide for the enrollment of up to 750,000 acres of land, so combined with today’s announcement, special provision is being made for up to 1.75 million acres in additional continuous sign-up CRP.
In addition to these newly announced continuous sign-up activities aimed particularly at wildlife considerations, the continuous CRP is always open for enrollment of a wide range of conservation buffer practices aimed particularly at soil erosion and water quality considerations.
Until now, the continuous sign-up has been aimed solely at partial field enrollments of buffers and wildlife habitat, while the general sign-up regular CRP has been aimed at whole field and farm enrollments. The new HEL initiative begins to blur the lines between this distinction. According to USDA, there is no limit to the percentage or size of parcel that may be entered via the HEL initiative.
The new wetland features also raise again, as they have in the past, the issue of whether CRP or the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) is the appropriate and more cost effective vehicle for wetland restoration activities. Under WRP, the federal investment purchases long-term or permanent protection, whereas CRP is only a 10-year agreement.