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New USDA Report Highlights Successes of the Wetlands Reserve Program

August 23, 2011


On Monday, August 22, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) released a new publication highlighting the success of the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) over its 20-year history.

The Wetlands Reserve Program

According to the report, more than half of all wetland acres in the continental United States have been lost.  In some states, this number is as high as 90 percent.  Given that 70 percent of wetlands are on private lands, farmers and other private landowners play a central role in conserving those that remain.

The WRP provides this opportunity.  Over the program’s 20 years, more than 11,000 private landowners have enrolled 2.3 million acres in the WRP.  As the report states, “the voluntary nature of WRP allows effective integration of wetland restoration on working landscapes, providing benefits to farmers and ranchers who enroll in the program, as well as benefits to the local and rural communities where the wetlands exist.”

NSAC developed the original legislative proposal for WRP in 1988 as a pre-1990 Farm Bill “marker bill” and then advocated successfully for inclusion of the marker bill language in the 1990 Farm Bill.

Under the WRP, USDA purchases long-term or permanent easements to restore, protect and enhance wetland values and functions on eligible wetland that has been in agricultural production.  The program is competitive, with landowners submitting bids to USDA for enrollment.  USDA may also enter into restoration cost-share agreements and provide technical assistance to WRP participants.  To read more about the program, visit the WRP section of our Grassroots Guide to the 2008 Farm Bill.

Report’s Summary of Program Outcomes

Water Quality

  • Studies from the Prairie Pothole Region in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota show that WRP projects in these states have the potential to reduce soil loss by as much as 124,000 tons per year.  That’s enough soil to fill over 3,600 dump trucks.  The amount of soil could prevent over 400 tons of nitrogen and 5.5 tons of phosphorus from washing downstream in the area alone.

Flood Prevention

  • WRP projects are helping slow and store floodwaters.  Research shows restored WRP wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region have a water storage capacity of over 23,000 acre- feet—this would cover 46,000 acres, or an area the size of Washington D.C., in six inches of water.

Wildlife

  • One-half of all bird species in North America and more than one third of all federally listed species depend upon wetlands during part of their lifecycle[…]  WRP projects are providing critical habitat for, and aiding in the recovery of, a wide range of these rare and declining species, including wood storks, whooping cranes, Indiana bats and bog turtles.
  • Currently listed as a federally Endangered species, wood storks nest in colonies or rookeries in cypress swamps[…]  In 2010, a colony of over 125 wood stork nests, 580 cattle egrets and various other waterbirds were discovered on a WRP project in southwest Georgia.  Since these southern restored wetlands are so valuable to these birds, WRP is considered essential to the federal Wood Stork Recovery Action Plan.
  • Due to habitat loss, the Louisiana black bear’s population was severely diminished to roughly 100 bears by the 1950s in Louisiana.  Listed as federally Threatened in 1992, WRP helped reverse the bear’s decline, with the first documented litter found on a WRP easement in 2004. With continued utilization of WRP habitat, the bear’s population in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia is now estimated at 500 bears and growing steadily.
  • The federally Endangered whooping crane is dependent upon wetland habitat[…]  There are now over 400 whooping cranes, some of which have been documented using WRP wetlands in Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, and Florida.
  • A collaborative effort in Oregon’s Willamette River Watershed where 62 landowners enrolled 7,600 acres into WRP improved Oregon chub survival.  The habitat restoration and subsequent population increase helped the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decide to down-list the chub from Endangered to Threatened.
  • In Indiana,[…] teams of scientists and community volunteers scour[ed] the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area WRP site to tally species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, insects and plants. After a two-day search, the teams recorded over 1,000 species on the property.

Carbon Sequestration

  • Conservative estimates show that, WRP easements could account for over 1.2 billion pounds of sequestered carbon annually.  This equals the amount of carbon emissions from over 360,000 cars, or enough to line cars up from New York to Los Angeles.

Economic and Recreational Benefits

  • WRP is considered a ‘Lifeline for Fisheries.’  For example, Gooseneck Cove in Rhode Island is now restored after decades of degradation.  Restoration brought back the natural tidal flow in the marsh, along with native vegetation, and improved habitat for striped bass, bluefish and numerous water birds.
  • Historically, over 200,000 acres of wetlands existed in Nebraska’s 21 counties making up the Rainwater Basin (RWB).  While only 17 percent of those wetlands remain, millions of migrating waterfowl in the Central Flyway still stop there each year[…] WRP wetlands provide over 12 percent of the much-needed, wetland-derived food for migrating waterfowl while they are in the RWB[…]  In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that WRP wetlands in the neighboring Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas have a potential waterfowl carrying capacity of over 48,000 pairs of ducks per year.
  • The Mississippi Alluvial Valley is the Nation’s largest floodplain and a critical region for numerous species of waterfowl, including wintering mallards and wood ducks.  However, the region had lost 75 percent of its historical forested ecosystem by the 1970s. WRP work has restored over 530,000 acres in the floodplain.  On WRP easements in the valley alone, enough foraging habitat now exists for 136,000 ducks for 100 days.

An Uncertain Future for the WRP

Despite the economic, recreational, ecological, and public health benefits of wetland conservation, the WRP is at risk of losing its funding after fiscal year (FY) 2012.

The WRP is one of 37 farm bill programs that were funded through but not after FY 2012.  Together, these programs account for $9-10 billion dollars (depending on estimation approach), or 4% of the $283 billion five-year total cost of the 2008 farm bill.  WRP and the Supplemental Agriculture Disaster Program (SURE) alone account for nearly two-thirds of the missing $9-10 billion.  Unless offsets are found, WRP will be lost through the lack of funding.

Complicating the situation is the new congressional super committee, created by the Budget Control Act of 2011, and charged with coming up with a ten-year spending cut of $1.5 trillion by the end of the year.  The super committee’s decisions could significantly change the funding landscape – by reducing or eliminating direct payments or re-funding SURE, for example – and make it even more difficult to find money for WRP.  Or they could decide that valuable programs like the WRP should be funded as part of the budget control bill, with sufficient cuts elsewhere in the federal budget to achieve the required net savings.

Why Should we Care?

The Wetlands Reserve Program is the single most important voluntary wetlands protection program in the United States.  It provides private landowners an opportunity to conserve wildlife habitat and biodiversity, protect against floods, improve water quality, and create economic and recreational opportunities on their land and for their communities.

As the report puts it:

Wetlands are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to tropical rainforests and coral reefs in the diversity of species they support.  While wetlands only occupy about five percent of the continental U.S. land surface, up to one-half of all North American bird species feed or nest in wetlands, more than one-third of Endangered and Threatened species rely on them, and wetlands are home to nearly one-third of our plant species.

We face a major hurdle in maintaining the WRP in the next farm bill.  There is an urgent need to find a solution to this problem, and we will continue to work with our members, partners, and with Congress to do so.


Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill


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