NICOLLET, MINN. — This was all corn and soybeans,’’ said Mike Stevenson, pointing to a swath of prairie grass surrounded by cottonwood trees a stone’s throw from the Minnesota River.
Now pheasants, deer, turkeys and other wildlife roam the land.
“It’s not just pheasants, it’s frogs and snakes and butterflies and all sorts of wildlife,’’ Stevenson said the other day, toting a 12 gauge while his springer spaniel, Dietz, sought pheasant scent. The low land frequently floods, and when it was plowed and planted, valuable soil washed into the river.
“It should never have been row-cropped,’’ said Stevenson, 62.
And it never will be again.
Fifteen years ago, Stevenson and his brother Alan, who co-own the 144-acre farm, enrolled about 50 acres in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). That federal-state partnership paid landowners near and along the Minnesota River to remove marginal lands from production and restore naive prairie grasses or wetlands. It also paid them for perpetual conservation easements, meaning the restored land could never be plowed and planted again.
The Stevensons were among the first to sign up. Eventually, 100,000 acres were enrolled — creating wildlife habitat where virtually none existed and helping to reduce erosion and runoff into the river. The program still gets rave reviews.
“It worked out fantastic,’’ said Stevenson.
Now state officials want to start another CREP that would enroll 100,000 acres in 54 counties, from the northwest to the southeast. The program is targeted to improve water quality, but those 156 square miles would become prime wildlife habitat, too, said Bill Penning of the state Board of Water and Soil Resources, which is spearheading the effort.
“It would be mostly grassland and wetland restorations,’’ he said. “They would benefit wildlife, and by improving water quality we’d be improving fish habitat, too.’’
But conservation doesn’t come cheaply.
CREP I cost $246 million — $165 million of federal dollars matched by about $81 million of state money. The latest CREP is estimated to cost about $800 million, and the federal government would pay up to 80 percent of that. The state already has set aside more than $55 million but might need four times that amount.
“If we want to protect water quality and provide permanent wildlife habitat, we’re going to have to pay for it,’’ Penning said. “It would be perpetual conservation, and we’d only pay for it once.’’
How it would work
But looming over the proposal is CREP II, launched in 2005, which was a major disappointment. Officials had hoped to enroll 120,000 acres, but eventually landowners signed up just 7,200 acres. That program was embroiled in controversy when farm groups and some politicians opposed perpetual easements — touted by conservationists as a key benefit of the program for taxpayers and landowners.
Permanent easements eventually were dropped in favor of 45-year easements. The program fizzled. Timing was bad, too, Penning said.
“It was a time of increasing land and commodity values,’’ he said. The payments offered to landowners weren’t as attractive, so very few signed up.
Penning said the goal of the latest initiative — CREP III — is to offer permanent easements, and with land and commodity prices softening, he’s hopeful there will be no opposition this time, and landowners will eagerly sign up. The goal is to add 50,000 acres of buffers to streams and waterways, restore 30,000 acres of wetlands, restore another 15,000 acres of wetlands in flood plains, and protect 5,000 acres near wellheads — the source of water for many small towns.
“If we can get this up and moving, it would be an opportunity for landowners to comply with the new buffer law,’’ Penning said, referring to a law that will require buffers on many state waterways.
The latest CREP would work like the first one: Landowners enroll their acreage in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and are given annual payments for 15 years. The state adds a one-time upfront payment — up to 90 percent of the value of the land — to make the easement perpetual.
Landowners retain ownership; they can hunt it or lease it for hunting or even sell the land, but the permanent conservation easement stays on the land’s title, meaning the property can never be farmed or developed.
“CRP is the greatest conservation program in the country, but one of the criticisms is that you essentially start over after 15 years,’’ Penning said. When contracts expire the grasslands often are plowed and crops are planted. Minnesota has lost 247,437 acres — nearly 387 square miles — of CRP lands since 2007.
For landowners, the permanent conservation easements can be a great deal.
“We got $2,600 an acre, which was pretty good back then ,’’ said Stevenson. “We were able to pay off the farm.’’ Now, 15 years later, his yearly CRP payments just stopped. But he still gets to enjoy hunting or walking his land and seeing the wildlife it produces.
Penning doesn’t disagree that paying landowners 90 percent of the value of the land seems like a lot.
“But remember, that land is in production right now,” he said. “They are making money off it. And we’re buying a substantial amount of their rights.’’
The state is waiting to hear from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on its application. With luck, Penning said, landowners could begin signing up this winter.