Using conservation easements, the federally funded Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) now pays landowners like Tyler to return their land to its historical condition. It's a win-win situation - farmers receive the assessed agricultural value for their land and retain ownership, and fish and wildlife benefit from a restored wetland habitat.
WRP began as a pilot program in 1992 and has since restored 1.47 million acres of wetlands nationwide. In Nebraska, 317 projects, ranging from five to 1,680 acres, have restored 45,000 wetland acres and associated uplands during the past 10 years according to Randy Epperson, Nebraska WRP coordinator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). His position is partially funded by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, which works closely with the NRCS in promoting WRP and in selecting and designing the projects. The
To date, most WRP projects in Nebraska have been in the eastern half of the state. Priority was given to areas along the Platte and Missouri rivers and to the Rainwater Basin and eastern saline wetlands. But Epperson said landowner interest is increasing in western Nebraska, especially along the North Platte River.
About 90 percent of the projects use permanent conservation easements. Under these agreements, the owner retains the land and controls access to it, including for recreation and hunting. With a compatible-use plan, landowners often may hay the grass or allow livestock to graze, providing the needed disturbance to maintain plant diversity in a restored wetland. The owner may sell the property, but regardless of who owns it, land with a WRP easement must remain a wetland and may not be developed. Under a permanent easement, landowners receive up to 100 percent of the agricultural value of the land, and 100 percent of the cost of restoring the wetland. Other projects involve 30-year easements and payments of up to 75 percent of the land value and restoration cost. WRP will also pay up to 75 percent of the cost of restoring wetlands that will be preserved for a minimum of 10 years.
The 2002 Federal Farm Bill increased funding for conservation programs, including WRP. That has allowed NRCS to reduce a backlog of worthwhile projects. In the fiscal year 2004, NRCS spent $9.5 million on 65 projects to restore wetlands on 10,000 acres, putting Nebraska into the top five states in the nation for acreage enrolled during the year.
Last year $4 million went to Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) projects. WREP targets land in the Missouri River floodplain between Ponca and Rulo. The Nature Conservancy and natural resources districts along the Missouri River have each pledged $1 million to WREP to increase incentives for landowners. These funds created projects in counties where there previously had been none.
Epperson said these WREP projects complement large areas of habitat restoration done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commission along the river. Nebraska quickly used its initial funding allocation last year and Epperson expects this year's allocation to be spent just as rapidly. If that occurs, the state might be eligible for more funds. A total of $16 million is available for WRP and WREP projects in Nebraska this year.
Ted LaGrange, wetland program manager with the Commission, said all wetlands share three characteristics: They are wet most years for at least two weeks during the growing season; they support rooted vegetation that is adapted to growing in inundated or saturated
All types of wetlands found in Nebraska can be restored through the WRP, including wetland depressions formed in low spots where there is no outlet to a stream, riparian wetlands formed along streams and rivers, and Sandhills wetlands formed where the contour of the land dips below the groundwater level.
LaGrange said a large amount of land in Nebraska is eligible for WRP. About 1 million of the estimated 2.9 million acres of wetlands found in the state in 1865 have been lost to agricultural and urban development, or through changes in streamflows caused primarily by channel changes and water diversion. The largest losses were in areas beyond the Sandhills, which still contains more than a million wetland acres.
In some cases, WRP is paying landowners to restore wetlands in areas the federal government once paid to drain them.
"Once society felt there was an abundance of wetlands and the primary purpose was to really improve land for crop production," LaGrange said. "We did and in some places in the state we managed to get rid of up to 90 percent of the wetlands.
"Society has shifted its views to the point where we are looking at the remaining wetlands as an asset or an amenity and realizing that we need to have programs that restore or bring them back."
The most obvious benefit to increasing wetlands is creating wildlife habitat critical for migratory birds. Waterfowl, shorebirds and wading birds also nest in and around wetlands. The grasslands that surround wetlands are habitats for numerous birds, including bobolinks, dickcissels and grasshopper sparrows, as well as game species such as quail and pheasants. "Half the  bird species we have in the state use wetlands or are somewhat dependent on wetlands," LaGrange said.
Fish spawn in wetlands associated with lakes and rivers. When waters overflow these wetlands, nutrients are flushed into the river, providing food for fish. The state's 13 amphibian species, 18 of its 47 reptile species, 29 of its 80 mammals and 990 of more than 2,000 Nebraska plant species depend on wetlands. These include two-thirds of the state's threatened and endangered species, such as the piping plover, least tern, bald eagle, whooping crane, Salt Creek tiger beetle, pallid sturgeon, saltwort and western prairie fringed orchid.
"Any kind of wetland conservation we can get in place is going to be beneficial to fish and wildlife. And all the fish and wildlife benefits translate directly into recreational benefits," LaGrange said, pointing to hunting, fishing, bird and wildlife watching and education as benefits.
Wetlands serve other purposes, too. They slow overland runoff, filter silt, agricultural pesticides and nitrates, improving water quality in downstream rivers and lakes. In the process, wetlands also neutralize many of these chemicals, LaGrange said. Slowing and holding precipitation runoff reduces peak flows and flooding. It also permits water to
"Often the reason for a drainage system was to get the water off a site as fast as you can. When you get a whole bunch of drained wetlands in a watershed … it creates a higher flood peak downstream and a quicker rise because when you get rainfall, all that water just flushes right into the stream or the river system," he said.
Reversing earlier work that drained a wetland is often part of a WRP project. "We'll do anything that engineering makes feasible to put more water on a site," Epperson said. Drainage ditches are filled and sometimes plugged with water-control structures that can vary the amount of water that pools behind them. Where tile drains were installed, they are broken or plugged. Pits that were dug to concentrate water are filled. When feasible, sediment washed from surrounding farmland is removed to increase a wetland's storage capacity.
Along river systems, head cuts caused by channel incision are filled. Projects often involve restoring natural contours. "For years landowners leveled the ground to make it suitable for farming," Epperson said. "What we're doing with WRP is deleveling - restoring the microtopography, putting swales back in to hold pockets of water for wetland-dependent species and migratory birds, things like that."
For the Tyler project, engineers sampled soils and looked at 1938 aerial photos for reference before heavy machinery reopened 163,000 linear feet of historical sloughs on about 750 acres of farmland and 150 acres of grassland.
"Before all the land leveling was done, there wasn't a whole lot of farming here," Tyler said. "It was mainly still pasture."
The Prairie Plains Resource Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reseeded the area with a high-diversity mixture of grasses, sedges, wildflowers, legumes and other species that will colonize wetlands, uplands and transition zones in between, creating a wet meadow, a preferred habitat of migrating sandhill cranes.
After grading and seeding were completed, groundwater levels rose in the spring and water again flowed in the swales, which are about two feet deep and 20-to-30 feet wide.
"From a farming standpoint for row crops, water was our worst enemy," Tyler said. Spring planting was often delayed by wet ground, and after a crop was planted, high groundwater levels often limited its development. When irrigation pumps in the valley were turned on, the water table dropped and Tyler's crops improved. But he said crops in these fields required a lot of water and careful management. "Our soil profile had two inches of holding capacity in three feet," he said. "That doesn't give much window for error."
The opportunity to create wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities on his farm were big selling points when Tyler considered enrolling part of his farm in WRP. "That's where my heart and desire has always been, you know, in habitat, wildlife and hunting," he said.
He expects waterfowl to frequent the restored wetlands during spring and fall migrations, and increasing numbers to join the few pairs of Canada geese that nested there last spring. One afternoon last March, a trumpeter swan, northern pintails, mallards, ring-necked ducks and gadwalls were on the wetland. Tyler expects increased pheasant and quail populations in the adjacent grasslands. "I think at some point we'll probably start having prairie chickens nesting here," he said.
Tyler said the WRP payment makes the program worth investigating for any landowner who is dealing with wetlands.
"Most farmers don't want to deal with [wetlands], and they're hard to deal with. They cost you money to farm and you don't get the productivity off of them. There are no less inputs on a poor piece of ground than there is on a good piece of ground. In some cases, it's more."
LaGrange said small projects can provide wildlife benefits, too. "That small 5-to-10-acre spot on the back 40 can be really a jewel of a wetland."
Many wetland species are mobile and use a variety of wetlands during their life cycle. Many small wetlands dotting a region, such as in the Rainwater Basin, give birds more places to go when they are disturbed. Even the smallest saline wetland restoration project is a worthy increase for the state's most imperiled natural communities.
WRP managers hope to restore a total of 100,000 acres of Nebraska wetlands by the time the current farm bill expires in 2007. Epperson said funding increases and the addition of WREP have put that goal within reach.
"That's significant," LaGrange said. "That's 10 percent of the historical losses. Putting it in that perspective, it's a major step. Any wetlands you can put back in place are a huge benefit for fish and wildlife resources just because of how productive they are for fish and wildlife and for the other benefits they provide."
For more information about the Wetlands Reserve Program and other wetland programs, contact the nearest Nebraska Game and Parks Commission or Natural Resources Conservation Service office.