Wetlands Reserve Program: 11 Things (2022) You Ought To Know

A few decades ago, a program called the Wetlands Reserve Program was developed to encourage landowners to restore their wetlands.

Why?

Well, wetlands provide value that no other ecosystem can.

That’s why the USDA has been working hard to save them.

These areas include natural water quality improvement, flood protection and shoreline erosion control.

They also provide opportunities for recreation and aesthetic appreciation

In this blog, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the Wetlands Reserve Program.

1. What was the Wetlands Reserve Program?

According to the USDA, the Wetlands Reserve Program is a “voluntary program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and enhance wetlands on their property.”

The federal agency that runs this program, the USDA Natural Resource Conversation Service (NRCS), provides technical and financial support to help landowners restore their wetlands once they’ve enrolled their land.

2. When was the Wetlands Reserve Program established?

In 1990, the Farm Bill was passed by Congress, and it established the Wetlands Reserve Program.

In 2014, the Wetlands Reserve Program was discontinued and superseded by the Wetlands Reserve Easement option of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.

In its approximately 20 years of existence, the original Wetlands Reserve Program voluntarily enrolled millions of acres.

3. What are my enrollment options?

Here are the enrollment options for the Wetlands Reserve Easement option:

bulletPermanent Easement: This is a conservation easement in perpetuity.

The USDA will pay 100 percent of the easement value and up to 100 percent of the restoration costs.

bullet30-Year Easement: This easement will expire after 30 years.

The USDA will pay up to 75 percent of the easement value and up to 75 percent of the restoration costs.

bullet30-Year Contract: This option is only available on tribal lands.

The USDA will pay up to 75 percent of the restoration costs.

4. What is a wetland easement?

When you start researching the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, you’ll hear quite a bit about something called a “wetland easement.”

In this section, we’ll talk about what that is so you can enter the conversation informed.

The purpose of the Wetlands Reserve Easement is to reduce farming practices on hydric soils and return areas that farmers have manipulated back to their natural waterlogged state.

There are two types of easements that do this: permanent and 30-year.

Most applicants will select the permanent easement.

If this is accepted, the government will pay you a one-time fee (based on an appraisal), and in exchange, you’ll agree to stop all farming in certain areas.

Specialists from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the USDA, will then come and restore that area to its natural wetland state.

While there is some flexibility, you’ll generally have to abide by the program once you have signed the Agreement to Purchase a Conversation Easement (APCE).

5. What are the general landowner eligibility criteria?

The qualifications for the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program are as follows:

bulletYou must meet the adjusted gross income limitation.

Note: Producers with adjusted nonfarm gross income, averaged over 3 years, of $900,000 or greater are not eligible.

bulletYou must comply with the highly erodible land and wetland conservation provisions (sodbuster/swamp buster).

bulletYou must demonstrate ownership of the land for 24 months.

Certain exemptions (such as inheritance) may apply!

bulletYou must have existing water rights adequate for the planned wetlands or be willing to apply for or transfer additional water rights.

bulletYou must hold clear title to the land or secure a signed subordination agreement from the lien holder.

6. What are the general land eligibility criteria?

Just like there are landowner eligibility criteria, there are also criteria for the land!

Here’s a solid list that sums up the program land eligibility criteria.

bulletWetlands farmed under natural conditions

bulletFarmed wetlands

bulletPrior converted cropland

bulletFarmed wetland pasture

bulletCertain lands that has the potential to become a wetland as a result of flooding

bulletRangeland, pasture, or forest production lands where the hydrology has been significantly degraded and could be restored

bulletRiparian areas that linked protected wetlands

bulletLands adjacent to protected wetlands that contribute significantly to wetland functions and values

bulletWetlands that have previously been restored under a local, State, or Federal Program that need long-term protection

bulletLands established to trees through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)

7. How do I apply for a Wetlands Reserve Easement Program?

If you’re interested in applying, you should submit an application to your local USDA Service Center.

8. Once I apply for an easement, do I have to move forward with it?

Once you’ve applied to the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program, is that it?

Are you obligated to move forward with it?

No!

You are not officially enrolled until you’ve signed the Agreement to Purchase a Conservation Easement (APCE).

Before then, you can withdraw your application at any time without penalty.

However, after you’ve signed the APCE, you’ll be officially enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program.

If you withdraw your application, NRCS can seek cost recovery.

Thus, before signing the APCE, you should reflect on your decision and seek a firm understanding of the easement boundaries, planned restoration activities, and the contents of the warranty easement deed. 

9. What if my land is owned by an entity and not an individual?

The Wetlands Reserve Easement Program is not exclusive to individuals.

Entities (group of landowners, family members, nonprofit organizations, foundations, or church organizations) can also enroll this property in the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program as long as their land is privately owned.

State and federal agencies are not eligible to participate.

10. Do I have to enroll all my land in the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program?

No!

The decision to enroll your land in the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program is up to you.

The easement boundary will be determined by your conservation goal and how well the easement meets the goal of the program.

The boundary may also depend on how many restorable acres are present.

You can discuss the easement size and boundary with the NRCS during their preliminary visit to your property.

11. What are some FAQs when it comes to the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program?

Do you have a lot more questions about what it would look like to enroll your land in Wetlands Reserve Easement Program?

You’re not alone!

It’s a big decision, and we want to help by laying out all of the frequently asked questions that others have before making the same decision.

Note: please be sure to speak with your local USDA Service Center to verify that all of the below applies to the current Wetlands Reserve Easement program.

bulletCan I prevent trespassing on my property after a wetland easement has been recorded?

Yes, the land still belongs to you and you can prevent the general public from trespassing or accessing the easement on your property.

bulletCan I lease the wetland easement for hunting or fishing?

Yes, you still have the right to lease your land for hunting or fishing as these are considered “undeveloped” recreational activities.

Temporary structures (i.e. tree stands and duck blinds) are also permitted.

However, to install a permanent structure for hunting purposes, you’ll need permission from NRCS before installation.

These are permitted on a case-by-case basis.

bulletCan I use the wetland easement for developed recreation?

Land is allowed to be leased for undeveloped recreation.

However, you cannot use your easement area for developed recreation.

Developed recreation includes (but is not limited to): camping facilities, recreational vehicle trails and tracks, sporting clay operations, skeet shooting operations, firearm range operation, and infrastructure to raise, stock, or release captive raise waterfowl, game birds, or other wildlife.

bulletCan I graze within the wetland easement?

Unlimited grazing within a Wetlands Reserve Easement Program easement is not guaranteed.

Nor should you expect this type of allowance.

You can request limited grazing through an authorization request approved by the NRCS state conservationist.

Talk to your local NRCS field office for more information.

bulletCan I plant or harvest any crop on the wetland easement?

No, planting or harvesting any crop is prohibited on all wetland easements.

However, food may be planted to improve wildlife habitat through a compatible use authorization.

bulletCan I hay or mow the wetland easement?

Like grazing, no haying or mowing is guaranteed or should be expected.

You can request limited grazing through an authorization request approved by the NRCS state conservationist.

Talk to your local NRCS field office for more information.

bulletCan I build a house or other structure on the wetland easement?

No, building or placing structures on, under, or over the easement area is prohibited.

Temporary structures for recreational use (i.e. hunting) are permitted.

bulletDo I lose water rights associated with the wetland easement?

You still reserve the right to water uses and water rights that are identified as “reserved” to the landowner in the warranty easement deed.

However, there are some water rights that must be designated for the wetland easement in order to ensure that the wetland continues to function following restoration.

You will discuss water rights during the planning stages of easement acquisition.

bulletDo I still pay taxes with the wetland easement?

Yes, because you retain title and ownership of the land that is placed within the wetland easement, you must still pay your scheduled taxes.

bulletDo I have input into the restoration activities that occur on my property?

Yes, you will work closely with the NRCS throughout the Wetlands Reserve Easement Program process.

Specifically, you’ll be able to participate in the design of the wetland restoration project.

Ultimately, the project must fit the goals of both the program and the landowner.

If you’re unable to agree, then the project will be canceled.

bulletHow long does it take to secure an easement and restore a site?

It can be a long process.

The NRCS would like to close easements within 12 to 18 months from the application date.

This means you shouldn’t expect immediate compensation for your wetland easement.

From the closing of your easement, restoration must be completed within 3 years.

bulletWhat is my responsibility as a landowner?

Once your land is restored, you are responsible for the maintenance of the wetland easement.

This may include controlling noxious weeds, maintaining fences, controlling water, and taking emergency measures to control pests.

Final thoughts

Do you have land that’s eligible for this program?

Start looking into enrollment options!

Wetlands are so incredibly important to our ecosystem and protecting your land can help to make our world more productive and biologically diverse.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

2 thoughts on “Wetlands Reserve Program: 11 Things (2022) You Ought To Know”

  1. Good afternoon!

    My dad and I purchase a 320 acre WRP (perpetual easement) piece of ground, next to his house here in South Dakota, two years ago. It was put into the program in 2010 and there wasn’t a single management practice done to it since. Also, I work closely with our NRCS office for other conservation farming practices and I still can’t understand why we can’t plant trees out there on that ground. We are working with the NRCS office to hopefully get it reseeded and will be up for review in a month. It looks awful compared to what it looked like 10 years ago. Say we were to get it reseeded, can we help pick some taller native grasses and shrubs to be planted out there vs the what they picked originally on certain areas? And is there anything way to get around being able to plant a shelter belt for trees? We have a lot of deer and other animals that winter on this property and thermal cover is the one limiting piece that would really help the animals survive our harsh winters. You can email me directly. Thanks for your time!

    Deon

    Reply
    • Hello Deon, unfortunately, I cannot answer that question. The best I can offer is to recommend doing what you are already doing and speak with the local NRCS office.

      Reply

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