USDA to fund wetland mitigation banking for farmers

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 28, 2016 - USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced Thursday it will offer $9 million in resources to states, local governments and third parties that establish or expand wetland mitigation banks for farmers to utilize.

“Over the past seven years, USDA has worked with private landowners to enroll a record number of acres in conservation practices, and we are seeing significant reductions in nutrient runoff and greenhouse gas emissions,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release. “Wetland mitigation banks will give farmers and ranchers more conservation options so they can find the best solution for their land and circumstances, and produce even more results.”

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These wetland mitigation banks will allow farmers who have drained wetlands to mitigate the loss of the environmental benefits generated by those wetlands, either by creating new wetlands on-site, or by purchasing wetland credits from producers who have restored or built wetlands off-site. Vilsack told reporters on a call Thursday morning that the “goal post” for this program is to have the mitigation banks generating credits that are available to farmers within two years of being awarded USDA funds.

In the past, Vilsack continued, producers have used wetland mitigation banks to stay in compliance with the swamp-buster provisions of previous farm bills. But “unfortunately, producers don't get the (full) benefit of traditional mitigation banks, because bigger developers have advantages over individual producers,” Vilsack noted. This program, on the other hand, is specifically designed so that farmers and ranchers can maintain eligibility for USDA programs.

Congress instructed USDA to create the wetland mitigation banking program in the 2014 farm bill. Applicants may be awarded up to $1 million to develop, operate and manage the banks with technical oversight from NRCS. The funding will be prioritized for the following locations: the Prairie Pothole region, areas near California's Vernal Pools, the Nebraska Rainwater Basin, and other areas that have significant numbers of wetlands compliance requests.

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States, local governments and qualified third parties that are interested in participating may tune in to a USDA-hosted webinar on Feb. 10 for more information about the application process. Proposals are due to NRCS before 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on March 28.

Ariel Wiegard, director of agriculture and private lands for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a sportsmen's group, told Agri-Pulse Thursday that her group “support(s) producers having the ability and option to mitigate unavoidable impacts to wetlands on private lands.”

“Although we consider the first line of defense against wetlands loss to be preventing wetland conversion in the first place, well-managed mitigation banks can compensate for some of the fish and wildlife habitat lost to agriculture,” Wiegard continued. “We're eager to finally see this money put into action two years into the current farm bill.”

 

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