Will a change to wetlands class hurt farm conservation?

THE WETLAND RESERVE Easement program has been especially popular with landowners in Addison and Rutland counties, with more than 3,000 acres of farmland enrolled in the program along Otter Creek. That land accounts for 68 percent of the total land enrolled in WREs statewide. Image courtesy NRCS

CORNWALL — Farmers and other landowners who are worried that an effort to reclassify the Otter Creek Wetland Complex as a Class I wetland would affect their current eligibility for federal conservation funds needn’t worry, according to representatives of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“Based on our current understanding of a Class I Wetland, if someone is allowed to keep farming (within the buffer), it shouldn’t impact the value of their land for the purposes of our program,” said James Eikenberry, a wetland specialist for NRCS who overseas the WRE program in Vermont.
Funds for that program are used to blunt the effect of climate change by financially supporting farmers who are letting marginal farmlands return to wetlands.
At public meetings held June 25 and 27 in Cornwall and Salisbury, respectively, several landowners whose properties abut the 15,550-acre Otter Creek Wetland Complex asked public officials how an effort to reclassify the swamp as a Class I wetland would affect the value of their properties.
The reclassification effort is being led by a steering committee, comprised of representatives from the Cornwall and Salisbury conservation commissions, along with representatives from Brandon, Leicester and Middlebury. If successful, the change has the potential to affect land in seven towns (Sudbury and Pittsford, are the others) and two counties, held by as many as 500 landowners.
At the Salisbury meeting, Paul Stone, a retired farmer who owns land in Brandon, asked if a reclassification would impact landowners’ eligibility for an NRCS program called Agriculture Conservation Easement Program – Wetland Reserve Easement component, or ACEP-WRE.
ACEP-WRE is a voluntary program that provides federal financial assistance to private landowners to restore, protect and enhance wetlands in exchange for retiring eligible land from active farming.
“If the state looks at this wetland as something that is currently being preserved and maintained as Class I… it seems to me that the landowners would be doing the work of restoration and preservation for the state (without compensation) and that is not necessarily the case (now),” said Stone on June 25. “I would like to know what is going to happen to the value of my land if this is reclassified.”
The Otter Creek Wetland Complex is currently considered a Class II wetland by the state of Vermont. It has a 50-foot protective buffer around its perimeter where development and clear-cutting to establish new pasture, among other practices, are restricted by the state. If a portion of the complex is redesignated Class I, that buffer will extend to 100 feet.
But Eikenberry said the change to Class I Wetland should hurt the value of land owned by Stone or any other farmer hoping to put their land in a conservation program.
Since the late 1990s, the USDA has worked with Vermont farmers to establish 61 Wetland Reserve Easements, totaling 4,393 acres. The program has historically been popular with farmers in Addison and northern Rutland counties.
“About 3,000 of those acres are along Otter Creek in Addison and Rutland county, and in particular lie along the Route 73 corridor,” Eikenberry said.
To secure a WRE on land that was previously farmed, a farmer must first demonstrate that they are in compliance with current USDA standard farming practices. Their land is then assessed by NRCS employees for its restoration potential at no cost to the farmer. Once the agency determines the land is eligible for conservation and should be prioritized, it determines the value of the land proposed for conservation.
If the land already has an “encumberance” on it, such as an existing easement, NRCS pays in full for an appraisal. “In that case, we can legally pay a farmer for 90 percent of what the full value of that land is,” Eikenberry said.
If no existing easement is in place, NRCS makes an offer based on the value per acre of the land as determined by an annual market analysis of local real estate data for similar land. The agency then compensates the farmer in full for the value of that land.
Once conserved, NRCS partners with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to restore the former farmland as wetland. The farmer still owns the property, but agrees not to farm it.
Eikenberry says that much of the land conserved through these programs is land that was converted from natural wetland to farmland by farmers in the period after World War II, when the federal government designated funding to help farmers claim more agricultural land by building drainage ditches and other infrastructure that must be maintained.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service report “Wetlands Losses in the United States 1780s to 1980s,” Vermont lost 121,000 acres of wetlands between 1780 and 1980, representing a 35 percent decline in acreage statewide. Most wetland loss during that period was due to conversion of wetlands to agricultural land, when more than 109 million acres of wetland were drained nationwide. Midwestern states such as Iowa and Ohio lost as much as 90 percent of their original wetland acreage during that period. “Since 1980, the majority of wetland loss has been due to development,” says Eikenberry, who adds that this loss has ramifications for soil and water quality, flooding and other factors that impact farmers.
Federal funding to drain wetlands ceased in 1985 with the passage of the Food Security Act. The existing WRE program, which was formally launched in Vermont in the early 2000s, aims to help farmers who no longer wish to maintain those ditches in order to farm wetlands get compensation for allowing the land to be restored instead.
“Many of the folks we’ve worked with realize that because this land is naturally wet, and flooding seems to be happening more frequently, it’s never going to be great farmland. They’re asking, ‘If I don’t want to put that much money per acre into this land for not much yield, are there other ways to turn it into an asset?’” Eikenberry said.
He called the program “a climate change adaptation stategy” for many of the farmers he works with.
According to Eikenberry, a potential reclassification of the Otter Creek Wetland complex as a Class I Wetland would have no bearing on how lands abutting the complex are appraised for WREs or assessed for restoration potential.
The Nature Conservancy and Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife also own and manage about 2,000 acres of land for conservation within the wetland complex. Much of it was purchased in the past from private landowners at prices determined through property appraisals.
“The department is very interested in continuing to acquire land. (The Otter Creek Wetland Complex) is one of 11 focus areas we have identified statewide to prioritize our land acquisition work,” said Jane Lazorchak, the department’s land acquisition coordinator in a recent email.
When asked if the department’s interest in purchasing new land from private landowners would change if the reclassification effort were successful, Lazorchak said, “Our interests would not change.”
At the June 25 meeting in Salisbury, Rose Paul, director of science and freshwater programs for the Vermont Chapter of the Nature Conservancy told the audience, “This Class I designation does not change much about the potential use of that 50-foot buffer from an appraiser’s standpoint. If there are folks who are no longer interested in owning wetland because it’s no longer returning value to you as a landowner, we would love to talk to you.”

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