House trims funding for federal wetland program

By Tim
Spielman
Associate Editor

Washington — Conservationists this week encouraged members of
the U.S. Senate to consider full funding of the Wetlands Reserve
Program following House action that could mean a 25-percent
decrease in new enrollments this year.

Dave Nomsen, vice president of governmental affairs for
Pheasants Forever and co-chair of the Theodore Roosevelt
Conservation Partnership’s Agriculture and Wildlife Working Group,
said the House appropriation could limit WRP enrollment to about
145,000 acres next year, well below past enrollment.

“We have routinely been around 200,000 acres,” Nomsen said.
Federal legislation allows for signup of up to 250,000 acres each
year, up to a cap of about 2.2 million acres nationwide by
2007.

In Minnesota, there are about 57,000 acres in the conservation
program, which pays landowners to take marginal, often flood-prone
acres out of production for conservation purposes. Nationwide,
there are about 1.6 million acres in WRP.

The House bill passed, minus an amendment offered by Minnesota
U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht that would’ve allowed WRP funding to
support the full 250,000 acres.

According to Gutknecht’s office, budget savings from trimming
WRP this coming year would be about $82 million, which would be
used elsewhere in the federal budget. Nomsen said House members
faced “touch decisions” in voting on the amendment.

“A vote against the amendment wasn’t necessarily a vote against
WRP,” he said. “This (the House bill) is the first step in a long
process. Now it’s on to the Senate …”

Nomsen said the Bush administration budget calls for full
funding of the program, up to the allowed 250,000 acres.

Prior to the House vote on the amendment, Gutknecht and
co-author of the amendment, Rep. Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi,
requested support of WRP from fellow House members.

“As you know, the Farm Bill made historic investments in
conservation, and WRP was a centerpiece of this with a goal of
enrolling 2,275,000 acres by 2007,” the congressmen stated in a
letter. “Unfortunately, recent appropriations bills have capped WRP
acreage below the statutory authorization. The result of this has
been a significant backlog in WRP projects, acres, and funding that
would permanently restore and protect wetlands in districts and
states across the nation.”

Under terms of WRP agreements, landowners may establish
conservation easements that are either permanent or for 30 years,
or they may enter restoration cost-share agreements where no
easement is involved. The program was established by the 1990 Farm
Bill.

Tim Koehler, Minnesota’s assistant state conservationist for the
Natural Resources Conservation Service – the office of the U.S.
Department of Agriculture that administers the program – said his
office will work with whatever money is available following the
appropriations process.

The state typically has received between $15 million and $20
million to purchase WRP easements, he said, making it one of the
top sign-up states in the nation.

“Some years we’ve been number one, others number two or three
(in WRP purchases),” he said. Fifteen million dollars in funding
could purchase about 10,000 acres in easements, he added.

Koehler said the state office currently has about $50 million in
applications already submitted. Another $50 million in apps is “on
the way here,” he said. How much land can be set aside depends on
the area of the state from which applications come, but he said $50
million could lead to about 30,000 acres in easements.

“Our demand here in Minnesota has been very strong,” he said.
“Obviously, the gap (between applications and funding available)
would widen … if we received less money.”

While actual completed easements stand just shy of 60,000 acres,
there are about 70,000 acres for which federal dollars have been
obligated, he said. Funding includes easements, restoration, and
legal fees.

The vast majority of WRP acres in Minnesota – about 80 percent –
are tied up in permanent easements. Nearly all the rest are 30-year
WRP easements, but most of them are “taken into perpetuity” through
the state Re-invest in Minnesota program.

Koehler said a reduction in funding not only would mean fewer
acres in WRP next year; it could reduce total acres put in the
program because of increasing land costs.

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