Wetlands Reserve Program marks 20 years of conservation

Staff Writer
Plaquemine Post South

WASHINGTON - In its two decades of existence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's federal Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) has restored more than 2.6 million acres of wetlands habitat across the U.S, creating prime wildlife habitat and helping the environment by holding and cleaning water. This includes over 260,000 acres enrolled in Louisiana.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) administers the voluntary program that works with landowners to protect, restore and enhance wetlands on private and tribal lands, a mission that helps rural and urban communities throughout the country by reducing flood damage, contributing to groundwater recharge and carbon sequestration, and providing recreational opportunities. Seventy-five percent of wetlands in the U.S. are located on private lands.

"The Wetlands Reserve Program is a great conservation tool, providing landowners a way to protect and restore wetland areas while making improvements to their properties - it is a win-win for the environment, the landowner and the community," NRCS Acting Chief Jason Weller said.

Through the program, NRCS provides technical and financial assistance to help landowners voluntarily restore and protect wetland ecosystems. Landowners may select either a permanent or 30-year easement, retaining ownership of the land once the easement is in place.

In the 20-year history of the program, more than 11,000 landowners across the U.S. have participated in this voluntary program. Landowners can receive financial assistance to restore wetlands on the saturated and flooded portions of their property that are difficult to farm, focusing their agricultural efforts on more productive soils.

Wetlands slow and store water, lowering the risk of flooding for nearby communities during hurricanes and other severe weather events.

The program is best suited for frequently flooded agriculture lands, where restoration will maximize habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, and improve water quality.

Wetlands are among the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. Rare and endangered wildlife, such as the Louisiana black bear, whooping crane, wood stork, bog turtle and other species, are thriving on WRP easement lands.

The majority of WRP easements are found in five states: Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida and California.

In Louisiana, the program has helped reverse the decline of the Louisiana Black Bear population, which was federally listed as threatened in 1992. The population is now steadily growing. In addition to providing critical habitat for other wildlife species, it has also restored and protected critical waterfowl habitat in the floodplain of the Mississippi River delta.

"Our nation has lost more than half of its historical 220 million acres of wetlands in the continental U.S.," Weller said. "I am encouraged by farmers, ranchers and other private landowners who are dedicated to reversing this trend through the restoration and care of the wetlands on their property."

Weller attributes WRP's milestone achievements to landowner interest, strong partnerships and effective science-based technical assistance. NRCS technical specialists work cooperatively with landowners, federal and state wildlife agencies, researchers and universities, conservation districts and non-governmental organizations to develop and implement effective hydrologic and vegetative restoration and management techniques.