The two U.S. senators from Arkansas have introduced a bill that would increase the amount of acres in their states and others that could be enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program between now and 2005.
The move might be considered unusual in that not only are the senators — Tim Hutchinson, a Republican, and Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat - from different parties, but they also hail from different ends of the political spectrum.
Hutchinson, who will run for re-election in 2002, introduced the legislation (S. 758), titled the Wetlands Reserve Program Enhancement Act. The legislation would expand the WRP program enrollment to 250,000 acres over the next four years. Lincoln is the lead Democratic cosponsor of the bill.
“This legislation provides an incentive to farmers and private landowners to voluntarily set aside lands prone to flooding and restore them to wetland wildlife habitat,” said Hutchinson. “The strengthening of this program is good for Arkansas farmers and conservationists.
“The restoration of these wildlife areas is also critical to the future of waterfowl throughout our country,” he said.
Many Mid-South farmers traditionally flood their fields in the winter to provide habitat to ducks and other waterfowl traversing the Mississippi flyway. The WRP program has helped put the practice on a more formal footing, according to the senators.
“Arkansas ranks third in all acres enrolled in the WRP program, and it's important to turn some of this marginal land back to its natural habitat for ducks and other wildlife,” said Lincoln. “As the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee, which has direct jurisdiction over conservation issues and this legislation, I will work hard to see that this bill becomes law.”
Established by the 1990 farm bill as a long-term conservation option for farmers, the WRP protects farmed wetlands using 10-year, 30-year, and permanent easements in exchange for a financial incentive. Eligible land for the program includes wetlands, lands adjacent to protected wetlands, and croplands and pastures which are naturally prone to flooding.
If eligible, the landowner voluntarily limits the use of the land, while retaining private ownership and access to the land. In addition, they may also lease the land for hunting, fishing, and other undeveloped recreational activities.
The National Resources Conservation Service administers the program. The NRCS, in conjunction with the landowner, develops a plan for the restoration and maintenance of the wetland.
Once restored, the wetlands act to: (1) improve water quality by filtering sediments; (2) reduce flooding; (3) recharge groundwater; (4) promote biological diversity; and (5) furnish educational, recreational, and aesthetic benefits. These benefits, as a result of the WRP, have helped landowners throughout the 46 states whose farmers have enrolled acreage in this successful program.
Despite the benefits to farmers across America, the WRP has become a victim of its own success, as it has already reached its authorized national cap of 1.075 million acres through 2002.
The top 10 states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, California, Missouri, Iowa, Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Illinois — have a combined enrollment of almost 427,000 acres. In response to the success of WRP, S. 758 would expand the acreage cap to a newly authorized maximum of 250,000 acres per year through 2005.
“This will help insure that farmers who want to enroll in the program will have the option to participate,” said Hutchinson. Hutchinson and Lincoln both serve as members of the Senate Agriculture Committee.