Commentary: Wetlands do much more than just hold water

Their benefits are immense

By John Bushey

Do any of the following seem familiar to you? Wet, farmed land. Wet, flood-prone land. Wet, unproductive land. Wet, marginal woodlands.

John Bushey

If you have experienced this scenario or are dealing with it currently on your land, there’s likely some history behind it. You see, in the past, a large percentage of land tracts containing hydric soils in Delaware were drained from wetlands to make available for other uses.

These wetlands were typically drained using manmade ditches, so that they would be conducive to farming or harvesting trees. However, in 1985, the federal government included provisions in the Farm Bill to discourage the conversion of wetlands to non-wetland areas by denying farm program benefits to those who converted wetlands after 1985.

The value of wetlands has become more widely recognized, and there has been an emphasized need to restore them. The cumulative benefits of wetlands reach well beyond their boundaries to improve watershed health, the vitality of agricultural lands and the aesthetics and economies of local communities. Restored wetlands provide habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, protect and improve water quality, and increase groundwater recharge.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) may be able to assist you in restoring your previously drained crop- or woodland into an environmentally beneficial wetland through its easement program. The Agricultural Conservation Easement Program’s (ACEP) wetland reserve easement (WRE) component offers funding for perpetual easements and 30-year-term easements to restore, protect and enhance wetlands, while maximizing wildlife benefits.

WREs help landowners to restore former wetlands with a history of agriculture that have been degraded by grazing or other uses. Landowners receive monetary compensation, while retaining ownership of the land. Offered land may be eligible if it is in an Agricultural Preservation District as long as it is not enrolled in any other farm preservation easement.

Eligible land includes (but is not limited to):

• Forest, woodland and other lands where the hydrology has been significantly degraded and can be restored.

• Farmed wetlands or wetland pasture.

• Previously converted cropland, hayland and pasture (crop fields that were once considered wetlands before significant changes to the hydrology).

• Land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.

Landowners are paid per acre for their WRE. For permanent easements, NRCS pays 100% of the easement purchase cost and 100% of the restoration costs. For 30-year easements, NRCS pays 75% of the easement purchase cost and 75% of the restoration costs. The purchase cost paid to the participant is based on a geographic area rate cap determined annually. Applicants may request to receive a lower compensation amount.

Interested landowners will need to provide NRCS with documentation showing ownership of the land for the past two years and a copy of the land deed at the time of application. Also, interested landowners will need to complete all USDA eligibility requirements.

Now is a great time to explore opportunities for protecting and restoring wetlands on your land.

To learn more about wetland reserve easements, contact your local NRCS office or Easement Program Specialist John Bushey at john.bushey@usda.gov or 598-4746. The Delaware NRCS Landowners Guide to the ACEP provides a detailed overview about the application process and participant responsibilities. To view this document and the ACEP page, visit www.de.nrcs.usda.gov and enter “ACEP” in the search bar.

John Bushey is an easement program specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Delaware.

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