The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is seeking public comments on changes to several programs authorized in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, or 2008 farm bill. Those programs are the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP), the Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program (FRPP), and the Grassland Reserve Program, as well as the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP).

EQIP is a voluntary conservation program that provides technical assistance and payments to help crop and livestock producers address environmental concerns through conservation improvements on agricultural and non-industrial private forest lands. The 2008 farm bill includes non-industrial private forestland as an eligible land use and provides payments for conservation practices related to organic production or the transition to organic production. It also provides for increased payment rates to historically underserved producers, including limited resource, beginning, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

WHIP is a voluntary conservation program that provides financial and technical assistance to private landowners to develop and improve high quality habitat for fish and wildlife. The 2008 farm bill authorized three categories of eligible land for this program — private agricultural lands, non-industrial private forest lands and Indian lands. The new farm bill excludes non-agricultural lands and publicly owned lands (federal, state, county or local) from eligibility.

FRPP is designed to help farmers and ranchers preserve their agricultural land. The 2008 farm bill contains several significant changes to FRPP. The program's purpose changed from protecting topsoil to protecting agricultural use. NRCS will provide funding to purchase easements; however, it will no longer purchase easements on its own. Churches, universities and hospitals are now eligible as cooperating entities to purchase easements.

GRP is a voluntary program for landowners and operators to protect, restore, and enhance grassland. The program emphasizes support for working grazing operations, enhancement of plant and animal biodiversity, and protection of grassland and land containing shrubs and forbs under threat of conversion.

The interim rules have been published in the Federal Register and will be open for public comment through March 16 for EQIP, March 17 for WHIP and FRPP, and March 23 for GRP.

The interim final rules can be viewed on the NRCS Web site at www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/farmbill/2008/interim-rules.html or on the Federal Register at www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/.

The interim final rule incorporates statutory changes and establishes the program's proposed policy for the life of the 2008 farm bill. Public comments on this rule will be used to develop final rules.

NRCS also seeks comments on the interim final rule for the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). The 2008 farm bill reauthorized and amended the program, and an interim final rule was recently published in the Federal Register.

“WRP helps landowners restore their land to its natural wetland condition with an emphasis on priority wildlife habitat and environmental benefits,” said Don Gohmert, NRCS state conservationist for Texas. “I would encourage those interested in wetlands conservation to review this interim final rule and provide written comments to NRCS by March 16.”

WRP, administered by NRCS, provides technical and financial assistance to eligible landowners to address wetland, wildlife habitat, soil, water, and related natural resource concerns on private agricultural land. The program provides landowners financial incentives to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property. This voluntary program strives to achieve the greatest wetland functions and values and optimize wildlife habitat on every enrolled acre. To date more than 2 million acres have been enrolled in the program.

NRCS encourages written comments on the interim final rule from individuals as well as governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations during the 60-day comment period. The interim final rule can be viewed at: www.gpoaccess.gov/fr/. Instructions for providing comments are included in the interim final rule. The period for public comments will close March 16, 2009.

Wetlands are biologically diverse and dynamic ecosystems that support diverse populations of wildlife, plants, and fish. They supply life-sustaining habitat for hundreds of species, including many of the nation's endangered and threatened species. They provide a protective buffer for our towns and cities against floods and storm surges. They also buffer coastal areas from erosion. Wetlands also help protect water quality by filtering out pollutants and offer aesthetic and recreational opportunities.

For more information on NRCS, WRP, and conservation programs available in your community, visit your local USDA service center, or visit NRCS online at www.nrcs.usda.gov or www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs/wrp/.