DAVIS, Calif., May 31, 2012 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- There is plenty of reason for California to celebrate National Wetlands Month now before May gives way to summer days. The Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), a Farm Bill Conservation program, is marking its 20th anniversary and in those two decades the program in California has managed to protect and restore over 120,000 acres of historical wetlands that are home to almost 200 species of birds. All of these wetlands were voluntarily restored through 315 contracts with farmers and ranchers. Collectively this represents the restoration of more than one fourth of all of California's functional wetlands.
And last year was the strongest year yet for WRP in California. In 2011, 45 California farmers put 11,962 acres of wetlands under easement and began the process of restoring marginal fields to productive wetland ecosystems. Wetlands are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, comparable to tropical rainforests and coral reefs in the diversity of species they support, according to the NRCS national report, Restoring America's Wetlands. "WRP provides a tool to reestablish a small portion of the native wetlands California once had," says Dean Kwasny, wetland easement specialist with NRCS.
Two recent examples of WRP easements include the Dos Rios Ranch near Modesto and the Dry Creek property south of Sacramento. After 10 years of negotiation the 1600-acre Dos Rios property was recently celebrated by public and private partners as a key piece of riverfront habitat at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers and adjacent to an existing wildlife refuge.
The 4,500 acre Dry Creek property puzzles together several other pieces of protected land to form 25,000 contiguous acres of grassland vernal pools—possibly the largest in the State. This property is an example of a recent change in WRP that allows some managed grazing of WRP properties. In this case The Nature Conservancy has gathered evidence that grazing helps the specialized vernal pool plants from being outcompeted by non-native grasses.
"NRCS recognizes that livestock grazing can function as an effective management tool to improve vernal pool landscapes," said Kwasny. "NRCS in California is now offering a Grazing Reserved Rights Pilot Program as part of WRP. The pilot program allows grazing on enrolled land under an NRCS-approved wetlands conservation and rotational grazing plan."
"WRP does not target high quality, productive farmland, but rather it's a tool for restoring a troublesome patch of wet cropland that could have a bright future as a wetland, absorbing flooding, filtering water, and providing habitat," explained Kwasny.
At the other end of the spectrum there are now WRP properties in California that were enrolled in 1992 when California participated as a pilot state for the program. These properties now display the full value of wetland values offered by the historical wetlands before they were converted to cropland.
Even with the significant success of the WRP program, however, wetlands in California still cover just 500,000 acres or 0.5 percent of California's land base, down 90-95 percent of their likely original expanse. Yet this small area provides numerous long-term benefits to the environment and communities. Wetlands clean water by providing natural pollution control, reduce flooding and soil erosion, and supply habitat for wildlife. They also provide many opportunities for recreation such as hiking, fishing, bird watching, photography, and hunting.
Nationwide more than 11,000 of America's private landowners have voluntarily enrolled over 2.3 million acres into the WRP. While wetlands only occupy about five percent of the continental U.S. land surface, up to one-half of all North American bird species feed or nest in wetlands, more than one-third of Endangered and Threatened species rely on them, and wetlands are home to nearly one-third of our plant species.
SOURCE USDA - Natural Resources Conservation Service