Wetlands program right for landowners, habitat
By Charlie Meyers, Denver Post Outdoor Editor
Tuesday, December 17, 2002
CROOK - At a place where water percolating from an irrigation ditch trickles down the gently sloping escarpment of the South Platte River to soak the perimeter of a cornfield, a wetland is being reborn.
The Wetlands Reserve Program will add 450 acres on the South Platte.
Nearly 450 acres of land - golden stalks rimmed by a meandering bog - soon will be transformed into a place where waterfowl form the centerpiece of a haven for creatures great and small. Post / Charlie Meyers
It's part of a growing initiative that is little known and perhaps less understood.
The Wetlands Reserve Program has been part of the Colorado landscape since 1995, but only now is building momentum along the South Platte basin and in other parts of the state. An adjunct of the Natural Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project encourages landowners to protect, restore and enhance wetlands that might have suffered neglect or abuse.
"It's a great program," said Jim Horner of Sterling, who owns approximately half of this cornfield. "A lot of this land probably shouldn't have been broken out to start with."
Rectifying agricultural errors in a way that benefits both landowner and resource is the aim of a program that seems destined to grow swiftly under the latest Farm Bill authorized by Congress. To date some 5,200 acres have been enrolled in Colorado under permanent easement, while half as much more is dedicated to a 30-year program.
Approximately 85 percent of this activity is concentrated along the South Platte where it rambles through farm country from Greeley east to Nebraska. Other projects have been dedicated in the San Luis Valley, along with a few on the Western Slope.
The Wetlands Reserve Program enlists private lands that have been drained for agriculture or have adjacency to restorable wetlands of significant value. Landowners who dedicate such property to permanent easements receive 100 percent of the value of the land. The program also pays for the work required to rehabilitate the wetland. Under the 30-year plan, a landowner receives 75 percent of the normal compensation. Participating landowners retain all rights of private property.
"The program works well for landowners. They obtain an important resource without losing the value of the land. In some cases that value increases," said Greg Carnahan, eastern Colorado wetlands biologist for the conservation group Ducks Unlimited.
Carnahan, whose organization joins with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to provide guidelines and technical assistance, sees WRP as an increasingly important tool in habitat enhancement along the state's most vital waterfowl corridor.
Carnahan said opportunity for enrollment under the latest Farm Bill appears so expansive that private vendors such as DU will be certified for increased assistance. Ducks Unlimited already has approved four additional staff positions to facilitate WRP projects across the state, beginning as early as April.
As word of the benefits spreads among the agricultural community, participation could mushroom.
"There was some resistance at first, but landowners now see the economic advantages," said Dawn Jackson, administrator of the program in Colorado's Logan County. "The enhanced wildlife habitat can be leased to hunters or simply used for their personal pleasure."
Logan County boasts 1,860 WRP acres, with another 250 pending.
"That might not seem like a lot, but it's strategically important," Jackson said.
Among these is a wet pasture and adjacent bottomland owned by Larry Harris, who six months ago retired as an aquatic researcher for the Colorado Division of Wildlife to this farmland near Iliff.
"Everyone wins here - the farmer, the hunter, anyone who enjoys watching wildlife," Harris said.
With a scientist's eye, Harris also identifies a less obvious benefit, that of recharging a riverine aquifer increasingly depleted by irrigation. Authorities are concerned that the water table along the river is being lowered by pumping from deep wells. Should the WRP program proliferate sufficiently, that trend might be slowed somewhat.
Whether the more expansive goals of the project are realized remains to be seen. Meanwhile, as Harris suggests, it's a game that nobody can lose.
Jeff "Jesse" James - Owner of Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors
You can always tell who's in 2nd place by who's whining and crying the most. - Old hockey coach.
Dum spiramus tuebimur
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