USDA on Thursday announced it is offering funds to help states, local governments and other qualified partners develop wetland mitigation banks to help farmers and ranchers mitigate wetland losses in order to maintain their eligibility for USDA programs.
A mitigation bank will allow farmers to buy credits to compensate for lost wetlands. Credits are generated through the restoration, creation or enhancement of wetlands. With mitigation banks, landowners retain ownership and use of their properties while conservation easements are used to protect wetlands.
The number of credits generated on wetland mitigation projects is determined by the size and scope of wetlands restoration.
During a news conference Thursday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said though the mitigation bank concept is not new, currently farmers have a difficult time competing with large developers in completing projects and buying credits. There needs to be a balance between farmers remaining profitable and doing things that benefit their lands, he said.
In the Prairie Pothole region, for example, many farmers are faced with the prospect of either draining wetlands for crop production, or leaving those wetlands untouched and underutilize otherwise productive croplands.
“The reality is each producer has to make decisions for themselves and for their families,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack said he anticipates credits from the mitigation bank will be available within the next two years.
In the past five years, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has faced a backlog of wetlands determination requests in South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota, where prairie potholes dominate much of the landscape.
Five years ago, there were some 50,000 requests made with NRCS for wetlands determinations. As of today, Vilsack said USDA-NRCS has been able to narrow that number down to about 4,000. The mitigation bank, he said, would provide another tool for farmers to continue to preserve wetlands.
“It is an important opportunity to focus on critical efforts in conservation,” Vilsack said. “Producers don’t often get benefits of mitigation banks because larger developers benefit.”
The mitigation bank will make available $9 million to state, local governments and third parties, awarding up to $1 million for given projects. He said there are a number of states in need of targeted funds.
In addition, NRCS has scheduled a Feb. 10 webinar on how to apply for resources from the mitigation bank, Vilsack said.
Wetland mitigation banking commonly is used to compensate for wetland effects from development.
Right now there are a small number of mitigation banks in the United States specifically to assist agriculture.
With the new offering, NRCS is seeking applications from eligible third-parties to develop wetland mitigation banks, or modify existing banks to better serve agricultural producers. These third-parties include federally recognized Indian tribes; state and local units of government; for-profit entities; and nongovernmental organizations.
Funding awarded may be used to cover the administrative and technical costs associated with the development of a wetland mitigation bank or banking program. Funding may not be used to purchase an easement or any other interest in land.
Vilsack said NRCS will prioritize funding to locations that have known wetland compliance workloads. That includes the Prairie Pothole region, California Vernal Pool Region, Nebraska Rainwater Basin Region, and other areas with a number of wetlands compliance requests.
Project proposals for this program are due by 5 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on March 28, 2016. More information is available here.
“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,” Vilsack said.
“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.”