Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced the opportunity for producers to enroll a total of 1 million acres of land in a new Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) initiative to preserve grasslands and wetlands.

Vilsack discussed the new initiative at the Interior Department during the White House Growing America's Outdoor Heritage and Economy conference, which emphasizes the link between conservation and strong local economies through tourism, outdoor recreation, and healthy lands, waters and wildlife.

The conference has attracted boaters, hunters, anglers, farmers, ranchers, land conservationists, historic preservationists, outdoor recreationists, small business owners, local governments, tribal leaders and others from across the 50 United States to discuss ways to spur and support successful conservation projects around the nation.

USDA's CRP has a 25-year legacy of successfully protecting the nation's natural resources through voluntary participation, while providing significant economic and environmental benefits to rural communities across the United States. Under the Obama Administration, USDA has enrolled more than 8 million acres in CRP. The goal of the new CRP grasslands and wetlands initiative is to increase enrollment of environmentally sensitive land through targeted signups. USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers CRP, will set aside acres within the 32-million acre program for specific enrollments that benefit duck nesting habitat, upland birds, wetlands, pollinators and wildlife.

"By focusing 1 million acres of CRP on grasslands and wetlands, this initiative will have enormous benefits for farmers, sportsmen, and all Americans," said Vilsack. "CRP is one of our nation's most valuable and vital conservation efforts, ensuring cleaner air and water, preventing soil erosion, and enhancing economic opportunity in rural America by supporting recreation and tourism.

“With high crop prices, this approach to target our most sensitive lands is essential if we want to maintain the substantial benefits of CRP while ensuring that productive farm lands continue to produce the food and fiber Americans and the world needs."

Changes in program

Rather than wait for a general sign-up (the process under which most CRP acres are enrolled), producers whose land meet eligibility criteria can enroll directly in this "continuous" category at any time. Some of the changes brought on by the expansion will take place immediately and some will be initiated in the coming months. Changes include:

New Continuous Pollinator Practice – 100,000 additional acres

A new continuous practice to permit producers to develop pollinator habitat for many pollinator species.

Increase Acreage for Wetland Restoration – 200,000 additional acres

Two practices will expand that are designed to restore wetlands that are both within a 100-year floodplain and outside of a100-year floodplain. Last year's floods were a strong reminder of the value of wetlands in absorbing storm water and slowing run-off.

Restoration of Critical Grassland Ecosystems

This initiative targets areas that can restore important habitats to protect threatened and/or endangered species, candidate species, or species of significant social/economic importance. The restoration work would be done through the following existing practices and sub-initiatives:

Increase Acreage for SAFE – 400,000 additional acres

SAFE practices provide the flexibility to meet the specific needs of high-value wildlife species in a participating state or region through higher-quality habitat. SAFE projects would be developed at the state and local level.

Increase Acreage for Duck Nesting Habitat – 150,000 additional acres

Restores wetlands and develops nesting habitat in areas deemed as the most critical waterfowl areas. Currently, there are 175,000 acres enrolled in this practice.

Increase Acreage for Upland Bird Habitat Buffers – 150,000 additional acres

Provides extremely valuable habitat for upland birds such as quail and pheasants. Currently, there are 244,000 acres enrolled in this initiative.

Provide Greater Incentives for Continuous CRP

To encourage producers to sign up their most environmentally valuable acres FSA will increase the Signing Incentive Payments (SIPs) to $150 per acre from the current level of $100 per acre. The incentive is offered on most continuous practices and will include wetland restorations, pollinators and upland bird habitat.