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Restoring Wetlands on the Farm

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 | 10:34am

Note: This article originally appeared in the 2008 January-February issue of Tennessee Wildlife magazine. Persons’ titles mentioned reflect their positions at the time of the article.

Restoring Wetlands on the Farm

By Paul E. Moore and Mark Gudlin

Conserving and protecting wetlands are two of the most important environmental issues we face today. The loss of key marshes and similar areas is literally a matter of life and death for wetland wildlife. Their restoration is critical for the environment, waterfowl and other wildlife, and an provide countless benefits for the farmer or landowner. Wetland restoration can also increase and improve our groundwater.

“Protecting our wetlands is so important the Tennessee State Legislature passed the U.A. Moore Wetlands Acquisitions Act in 1986," said Joe Hopper, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Wetlands Acquisition Program Coordinator.

"Prior to 1985, there was great concern within the TWRA over the loss of wetlands habitat, but nothing was getting done to change it,” said Hopper. "Lack of funding and personnel made it impossible to address the issue. However, thanks to the Wetlands Acquisition Act, the TWRA was able to begin an effective restoration and conservation program within the state.

“The Wetlands Acquisition Act has really enhanced the waterfowl habitat in Tennessee. In fact, this program is one of the best things to happen for waterfowl in Tennessee, for hunters, and the agency. The wetlands acquired under this program are typically proclaimed as TWRA wildlife management areas or refuges."

The act defines the factors to be met for land to be defined as eligible wetlands. Lands meeting the criteria can either be targeted by the TWRA, in areas deemed to be high priority for wetlands and waterfowl, or potentially interested landowners can solicit the agency.

Hopper then gathers information necessary to develop a ranking score on offered lands, and the TWRA attempts to acquire the lands that score at the top and then go down the list. TWRA pays the appraisal fee, and then makes an offer to the landowner based on the land's appraisal. If the landowner accepts the offer, the land is purchased by the state and all necessary land surveys and closing costs are covered.

However, the state is limited in what it can do because there is simply not that much money available for these critical lands. Therefore, if we are to enhance and protect our wetlands, it's up to individual land­owners to take the steps necessary to make it happen. And, fortunately, there are a number of different programs and options landowners can use to restore wetlands on their property. 

Here follows a look at some of the programs available in Tennessee to further wetlands restoration. With a little research and the help of the individual agencies, landowners can find the one that best fits their individual needs.

Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP)

One of the most targeted programs for wetlands restoration is administered by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and is aptly named the Wetlands Reserve Program. While some of the programs helping wet­lands have many aspects under their umbrella of participation, the WRP is primarily a wetlands restoration program.

Landowners can participate in WRP by retiring qualifying lands from use for agriculture, grazing or other functions. The WRP program offers three different easement agreements to restore the land and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) pays the land­owner during the-easement period. Although landowners are retiring the land from agricultural use or future development, they are not giving up their rights to the ownership of the land, to access, or for recreational uses such as quiet enjoyment, hunting, fishing, and trapping. In fact, the landowner can even lease these uses to others to provide additional income from the enrolled land.

The restoration and compatible use of the property is generally worked out on a consensus basis. Parties involved in the planning may include the landowner the NRCS, the U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and TWRA.

Landowners do not lose their rights to the land they enroll WRP, nor are they required to allow public access as some people mistakenly believe. The only access that is required is to allow the NRCS or a designated representative access to monitor the wetlands throughout the easement term. Of course, landowners may access the land at any time as well allow others access by permission or by lease.

Application and information can be obtained by contacting the USDA Service enter in the county in which the land is located, or by viewing the USDA web site.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) targets retiring highly erodible and other environmentally sensitive croplands from production. Included in the many program options are several practices specifically designed to enhance wetland conservation. 

CRP lands must have had a cropping history prior to enrollment. The acreage must have been planted in an agricultural commodity for a given period of time (currently four of the six years between 1996 and 200 I and must presently be physically and legally capable of being planted in a normal manner to an agricultural commodity. To meet these conditions, there are a variety of conservation practice options available for landowners, including shallow water areas and bottomland hardwoods.

Enrolled landowners can receive annual rental payments and cost share assistance to establish these practices on eligible farmland. The term for a CRP contract is 10 to 15 years, depending on the practice.

While enrolled, the landowner still enjoys rights to the property for access, hunting, and other activities. Furthermore, the annual rental pay­ments provide a guaranteed annual income for the term of the contract, and this income is not subject to the various weather conditions that can affect crop yields. Landowners also have the option of leasing the ground for hunting or other activities to increase the financial reward from program participation.

Tennessee Partners Project

Around 1994, the Tennessee Partners Project began helping to create some temporary wetlands during the winter period on off-season farmland. By flooding and holding water on these harvested crop fields, water­fowl are allowed more areas to rest and feed during the winter migration months, both on their trip southward and then again aa they return to the breeding grounds.

The Partners Project is a coopera­tive effort of several different entities and is implemented in support of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Partners taking part in the program are the NRCS, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Ducks Unlimited (DU) TWRA, tile USFWS, and University of Tennessee Extension Service.

Tim Willis is a regional biologist with DU and helps implement the projects in Tennessee. He says the different partners share equally in the program with some contributing financially and others contributing in-kind services.

To participate, landowners must impound at least five surface acres of water. The impoundment must be flooded by October 1 or immediately after the crops are harvested. The water must be held until at least March 1 of the following year.

There are numerous advantages to the landowner for holding water in crop fields over winter. The standing water helps suppress weed growth, increase soil moisture, and promote minimum or no-till farming. It also prevents erosion and helps keep more soil in the field. In fact, studies have shown there is a 71 percent average reduction in soil loss on impounded fields.

Landowners can also benefit from the increased availability of wildlife. Hunting and wildlife watching opportunities increase dramatically. The landowners can use these benefits for themselves or lease the hunting rights to others to provide an off-season income from the land.

The Partners Project biologist will meet with the prospective landowner and evaluate the land. He or she will also help lay out a plan and will provide all the piping and water control structures. There is a cost-share op­tion for the dirt and levee work. 

This is a very popular project in Tennessee according to Willis, and it seems to be growing each year. All of Tennessee is eligible for the program, although most of the projects have been in the western portion of the state. Some 300 landowners have enrolled more than 14,000 acres in the project so far. 

Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program

The Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFW) Program began in 1987, and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It has grown tremendously since its inception and now has an annual budget of around $200,000.

This program focuses on what are known as the Federal Trust Species. These include migratory birds, inter-jurisdictional fish, federally listed endangered, threatened, or other declining or imperiled species. Because a great majority of these species occur on private ground, this program helps provide technical and financial assistance to cooperating private landowners and tribes. 

Brad Bingham is the USFWS Private Lands Coordinator for Tennessee. He describes the program as a cost-share program similar to others, but with a twist. Unlike some of the others, this one has the ability for unusual situations to go beyond the standard 75 percent cost-share.

The PFW Program will help install fences around wetland areas as well as work with springs and riparian sites. Often times, the program offers more in protection than in restoration. However, it will help purchase piping for shal­low-water impoundments that help waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wetland wildlife. So far, the pro­gram has worked more with rivers in the state than with wetlands.

Bingham says the program also offers technical assistance to some of the other programs, filling in gaps for the NRCS, TWRA, and others. It also provides an avenue for landowners to protect their wetlands, but without having to sign a permanent easement.

Getting Involved

Obviously, there are many ben­efits to conserving and restoring our wetlands. Wildlife, waterfowl, aquatic species, hunters, nature lovers, and landowners all have much to gain through wetlands protection. For more information on any of these programs, simply contact the administering agency, or check out the program informa­tion through website links and contacts at www. TWRAprivate­lands.org.

Paul Moore is a freelance writer from Henderson, Ky, with publishing credits in over a dozen regional and national magazines including, game mu/fish pub­lications, Blackpowder Hunting and Fur­Fish-Game.

(Update from Original Article) Mark Gudlin currently serves as the TWRA Habitat Program Manager. He is one of the longest tenured TWRA employees.