Waterscapes – The Wetland Reserve Program

by Henry Brabham


There was a heavy wet summer heat and we pushed out of the last swamp of the day. My cousin and I leaned against the work truck with sweat burning eyes and mud smeared clothes and viewed the wood duck boxes we just finished checking. It was a beautiful place even though she was hard on us. We stood in the late cool shade of two live oaks with great low limbs bending enough to step over. We rested on the limb under moss, and the leaves that rattled in the breeze, and talked … ducks! It was a natural wetland.

​The lily pad blackwater pockets sat warm and shallow around young bald cypress trees. Sharp white herons traded sides of the swamp mid-morning as we waded through beaver canals where the water was warm around our waist and cool black down around our feet, and then the water was all warm in the shallow flats of cypress knees. Under the oak we talked of a cold grey swamp with cupped wings of mallards coming like a staircase down through the trees, and early morning woodies whistling high up in three’s and four’s just over the tips of the trees. We had heard stories about this place. They used to call it “The Big fork” because the swamp split. On one side there was a deep canal running through the cypress trees to drain a field to be planted. The other side was a dry bed of hard mud and tufts of grass. through the dry grass between the trees, people could sneak onto the property to fish the canal leaving old rusted metal chairs and empty blue worm cups and beer cans. Now there is no canal, only long stick-legged birds searching for fish, ducks, alligators, floating grass with a bass steadying himself for a shiny ripple on the surface, and the lapping sound of dark water around the wide bottomed trees in a good wind. But, we didn’t hear about all this. We heard bout droves of ducks pouring into some WRP pond that used to be dry.

​I did not know much about WRP, which stands for “Wetland Reserve Program, and like any other waterfowler I wanted to know how to get droves of ducks, as well as the scenery that makes a slow morning enjoyable. I went to my county NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and they provided me with plenty of information on how to get started in the WRP.

​In the past ten years the Wetland Reserve Program has become the most popular and ecologically successful voluntary incentive-based wetlands re storation program in U.S. history. The funding for this program is made available by the Commodity Credit corporation and then implemented by NRCS.

​There are three program options offered by NRCS; short term 10-year cost-share agreement, mid-term 30-year conservation easement, and permanent easement restorations. NRCS provides financial assistance for landowners in the form of easement payments and restoration cost-share assistance. The lands that are enrolled mostly consist of floodprone restorable agricultural wetlands, and the cost per acre on a national average is approximately $1,100 for financial assistance and $75 for technical assistance with the average project size being 185 acres.

​For example, if a landowner has 100 acres of a dry Carolina Bay and wishes to participate in some kind of wetland restoration project he/she could contact their local USDA/NRCS office about the Wetland Reserve Program. The landowner would then receive a questionnaire referring to certain aspects of their land. The landowner may receive questions in the application such as: Has the wetland been altered? Is the ditch on or affecting the property line?

​Then, upon approval based on land value, which will be determined through NRCS, the project is underway. During the program the landowner continues to control access, recreational activities that are non-developed, the right to lease such recreational activities for financial gain, and can request the approval of other uses of the land that are determined compatible with the program’s conservation objectives. By becoming a part of the WRP a landowner and his/her community can benefit from improved water quality, reduced soil erosion, reduced flooding, improved water supply, and, as I have already mentioned, the benefit of improved habitat for wildlife.

​Landowners may sign up at their county NRCS office or USDA Service Center. During the year, NRCS will rank all eligible applications and submit them to the national office for funding consideration. You may also contact NRCS on the web at: http://www.nrcs.usda.gov