New programs, more funding promote conservation buffers Two million miles of conservation buffers installed by 2002 as a result of the National Conservation Buffer Initiative. That was the challenge issued in 1997 by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.

Farmers like Daryl Haack, Primghar, IA, are working to make that goal a reality. "We wanted to help ensure water quality and wildlife habitat for our children," says Haack, who installed a 15.3-acre riparian buffer along Dry Run Creek.

According to Max Schnepf, coordinator of the national initiative, the program has achieved 38% of its goal, or approximately 764,000 miles of buffers. "It's going to be a stretch to meet our goal, but new programs and increased funding are offering strong support," says Schnepf.

A variety of federal and state programs offering increased funding for buffer installation are capturing landowners' attention. These include USDA's Continuous Conservation Reserve Program (CCRP) and state-federal partnership program, Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), along with state programs such as Iowa's new $11.2 million "I on Iowa" clean water legislation.

"The CCRP offers a new sign-up bonus of $100-150 per acre, along with up to 90% cost share on buffer installation, higher rental rates for marginal pastureland and increased maintenance payments to help attract farmers," notes Schnepf. "Because we don't have legislation requiring buffers, we're hoping financial incentives will encourage farmers to sign up for the buffer program."

Funding for the new incentives under the CCRP is pegged at up to $100 million in fiscal year 2000 and $125 million in fiscal years 2001 and 2002.

In addition, CREP agreements have been approved for 11 states, providing a combination of state and federal monies to address water quality, soil erosion, and fish and wildlife habitat issues related to agricultural use. States with CREP agreements in place include Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. Seven more states have CREP programs in the approval process: Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

"Buffers are a time-tested technology and a reasonable answer to many things good land stewards should and would like to do," says Schnepf. "By taking a small amount of land out of production, the farmer is able to continue producing food and feed, crops and livestock while improving water quality, controlling soil erosion and enhancing fish and wildlife habitat."

Even though these are state- and nationally funded programs, Lyle Asell, interim director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), predicts success will come from a grassroots effort.

"We know that involving people through their watersheds, communities and farms is much more successful than trying to legislate them into compliance," he says. "These people have a history and future on this land and are willing to work to preserve it for the next generation. The financial incentives are an added bonus."

Numerous USDA service centers, or conservation field offices, across Iowa are currently hiring local individuals to contact farmers and explain the new programs. Funding for these positions comes from a unique partnership involving the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Division of Soil Conservation, DNR, EPA, Pheasants Forever, local soil and water conservation districts, and other interested organizations. Part of the new funding approved by the Iowa legislation will be used on this proven one-on-one approach.

"Our new staff person started in early May and within three weeks approximately eight new contracts were signed," says Scott Osborn, NRCS district conservationist in O'Brien County. "We hope to have another 100 sign-ups by Sept. 30."

Areas available for sign-up under the Iowa and CCRP plans are not whole fields but small acreages within fields or marginal pasture areas. New rules from Farm Service Agency also allow for increased width of filter strips to 120' and riparian buffers to 180'.

"The emphasis right now is on water quality," notes Osborn. "Conservation buffers present a win-win situation for landowners and the environment."

Daryl Haack established his riparian buffer in 1997.

"It was marginal pasture and the idea of improving the water quality along Dry Run Creek and establishing habitat for wildlife appealed to me," he says. "I'm proud to be protecting the land and water for future generations."

Currently, 15.3 acres of Haack's 138-acre farm are devoted to CCRP practices. The 15.3-acre riparian buffer features approximately 2,900 trees native to Iowa, including several varieties of maple and willow, dogwood, lilac, plum, elderberry, American cranberry bush and Russian olive.

"The fact that I could plant and maintain a conservation buffer without a lot of out-of-pocket costs certainly was a plus," says Haack.