Funds Needed for Wetlands Program

Thursday, July 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GOSPORT, Ind. (AP) — If Todd Brinson wants to hunt wild turkey, follow the tracks of an ambling raccoon or simply sit back and take in nature's beauty, he has to look no farther than his own back yard.

Brinson and five other men purchased about 60 acres of farmland in this town just north of Bloomington and restored it to its native wetlands under the Wetlands Reserve Program, a federal initiative that provides incentives to landowners who opt for conservation.

But hundreds of other farmers who have volunteered to restore wetlands on their acreage are waiting for federal dollars to flow their way.

Nationwide, about $500 million is needed to restore 500,000 eligible acres to wetlands. In Indiana, about $3 million is needed for 70 farmers to restore 3,300 acres.

``It's a nationwide problem and one the taxpayers need to address,'' said Ray McCormick, a fourth-generation farmer from Vincennes who has restored about 1,200 acres on his land. ''(Farmers) have signed up, but there is not enough funding for all the farmers who have signed up to be enrolled in the program.''

Farmers like McCormick and conservation groups from the Midwest are urging Congress to increase the money appropriated for the restoration of wetlands.

Brett Hulsey, Midwest director of the Sierra Club, said Congress has appropriated $15 billion to help farmers with commodities and overproduction, but only $1.5 billion to conservation efforts.

``We need to right this balance,'' he said.

Wetlands are generally low-lying areas where water accumulates, said Mike Blaise, Indiana Farm Bureau director of natural resources. Indiana once had about 5.6 million acres of wetlands, but those areas were wiped out as the state developed. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only 750,000 acres of wetlands remain in the Hoosier State.

Besides creating wildlife habitat, wetlands act as sponges, improving the health of nearby rivers and absorbing contaminants before they reach the waterways. They also protect farms, homes and businesses from floods — one acre of wetlands can store up to 1.6 million gallons of floodwater, according to studies by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Under the Wetlands Reserve Program, which was created by the 1990 Farm Bill, the government purchases easements for as much as $1,000 per acre. Landowners retain ownership, and while they must agree to stop farming the land and return it to wetlands, they can continue to hunt on the property, enjoy the wildlife or even do some logging.

The Wetlands Reserve Program can benefit farmers, because generally the land they convert is already easily susceptible to flooding and may be risky for planting.

``It's a good way for the small farmer to help reduce his debt,'' McCormick said, because the per-acre payment can be reinvested in equipment or other needs.