A wetland reserve program represents a voluntary government program designed to protect and preserve wetlands on private agricultural property. Landowners may grant a lifetime easement to the land, or an easement that expires after a defined period of time. In return, the government pays for use of the land and its restoration. The goals of a wetland reserve program include developing recreational areas, providing habitat for fish and wildlife, preventing flooding, and recharging groundwater supplies.
Land being farmed or in its natural state might be eligible for the wetland reserve program, including pasture property. Areas that become flooded or where groundwater supplies are depleted might also be considered for a reserve. The program also accepts property adjacent to existing wetlands that might contribute to the preservation of natural resources in the region.
Property owners who participate in the wetland reserve program do not lose ownership of the land. They may lease it for hunting, fishing, bird watching, or other recreational activities. Landowners might also request other approved uses, such as cutting timber on the land or grazing livestock.
Payment to the landowner depends on the type of easement granted. For a permanent easement, the government pays either the value of the property in an agricultural zone, a capped amount, or the amount requested by the property owner. When a lifetime easement is granted, the government typically pays the full cost of restoration.
If a 30-year lease exists, payments for land and restoration total 75 percent, while 10-year leases only cover three-fourths of restoration expenses. Conservation groups commonly assist landowners with costs not covered by the government program. These groups typically work to regenerate wetland areas that have been lost. If permanent or 30-year easements are granted, the government picks up the full cost of recording and appraisal fees, surveys, and title insurance.
Benefits of the program include incentives to farmers unable to use their land because of flooding. Wetlands restoration also improves water quality by filtering silt and chemical deposits, and enhances the diversity of fish and wildlife. Some wetlands provide areas for scientific research, educational opportunities, and recreation.
The wetland reserve program was included in the U.S. Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. It is administered by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service. Applications are available through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.