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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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June 2005

Safeguarding environmentally
sensitive areas

A program for farmers and other landowners

Natasha Kassulke

Wisconsin's program
Why CREP is good for the environment
Who can sign up and for how long?
Financial incentives
How does it work?
For more information

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the state of Wisconsin continue a $230 million program to protect the state's water quality and wildlife habitat.


Launched in 2001, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP (pronounced "krep"), offers financial incentives to stop farming land edges next to rivers and streams for a minimum of 15 years. Larger payments are available if the landowner offers a perpetual easement to stop farming these environmentally sensitive parcels altogether. Program participants receive annual rent, cost-share assistance and other financial assistance.

The program aims to reduce runoff pollution along Wisconsin's rivers and streams by installing buffers – narrow strips of land along a stream, usually 30-feet-wide or more that are planted with dense vegetation as an alternative to cropping or grazing close to the water. Haying and grazing are not permitted on these buffers during the contract period unless USDA permits it for emergency purposes.

In many cases, CREP makes sense for farmers because crops planted next to the stream usually yield less than in the center of the field. Farmers also don't need to invest in seed, fertilizer and chemicals to improve lower-yielding land. A Kenosha County study showed that field edges with low yields (less than 40 bushels/acre for soybeans and less than 115 bushels/acre for corn), would be more profitable if enrolled as buffers.

Since CREP began in Wisconsin, 3,106 CREP contracts have been approved in state covering 33,290 acres.

Currently, 47 Wisconsin counties can enroll in CREP. After the program was launched, sign-up started strong and then leveled off. Now some are concerned that the window to take advantage of the program may be closing.

"The program is authorized through 2007 and probably will be reauthorized," says Jim Baumann, a DNR senior policy analyst for the Office of the Great Lakes. "But there is an urgency to make good of available funding now because state and federal money isn't guaranteed."

Wisconsin's program

The CREP goal in Wisconsin is to reduce water pollution by installing 85,000 acres of riparian buffers and filter strips, and restoring 15,000 acres of native grasses and wetlands. Eligible areas include sensitive grassland areas in southern Iowa County and parts of Lafayette, Dane and Green counties that have seen dramatic declines in songbird populations. Efforts in Marathon, Taylor, Clark, Wood and Portage counties are underway to help revive prairie chicken populations and restore habitat for the Karner Blue butterfly.

The program is estimated to reduce annual phosphorus and nitrogen loading by 600,000 and 300,000 pounds, respectively, and reduce sediment loading to streams by over 330,000 tons a year. CREP will restore an estimated 3,600 stream miles and help the state meet state and federal water quality standards.

Increased nutrient loads also are believed to contribute to the spread of Cladophora along the coast of Lake Michigan and other Great Lakes. These algae blooms lead to unsightly and foul-smelling beaches The algae accumulate in large mats and looks like overcooked spinach.

"When the CREP program was introduced we convinced the Chippewa County Board that we could do a lot of good with it; literature shows that buffers may be the most important nonpoint source pollution prevention step that we have," says Mike Dahlby, Chippewa County private lands conservation specialist. "Most of the farmers I know view buffers as a common sense way to balance good farm practices with safe environmental practices."

Chippewa County, like many Wisconsin counties, has an agricultural based economy. The area is moving from dairy to raising cash grain crops.

"When you have cows, you need to grow a lot of hay for the cattle, but that area also is important habitat for nesting birds and insects. As the cows leave, so does the hayfield and we've lost some wildlife habitat. Adding buffers is important to bring back habitat," Dahlby says.

Some landowners in the area were concerned that if they put in buffers, their real estate tax would increase. But land enrolled in the program receives an agricultural use value assessment, which is often much lower than other land taxes. Others were concerned that the land would be open to the public, which is not true. Still, others were concerned that the areas would require intense maintenance.

"If you pay attention to preparing the site up-front it can be largely self-supportive after two years and the maintenance drops off," Dahlby says.

The program has had broad support from local resource managers. Chippewa County has signed up 2,100 acres with more on the waiting list. Of those signed up, about 1,200 are enrolled permanently (79 permanent easements) and others have signed on for 15-year agreements. About 20,000 acres drain through these buffers.

"Landowners keep telling me that they like having an option for permanent resource protection, yet, they still control the land and receive money up-front," Dahlby says. "Cash flow is important and some of the lands that are eligible for buffers would otherwise not be useable, so this is guaranteed revenue on that land."

Why CREP is good for the environment

Buffers are good for the environment because:

  • they create healthier streams and are good for fish
  • they provide wildlife habitat
  • they decrease the amount of pollution from nonpoint sources
  • they decrease the amount of sedimentation

"Buffers are critical to getting nonpoint source pollution and runoff problems solved," says Jim Jolly, Brown County Land Conservation Department program manager. "We know that buffers can reduce 70 percent or more of nitrogen, pesticides and sediment from entering a stream. Sediment and phosphorus stress the environment and cause problems in the lower Green Bay area."

Jolly supports the CREP goals and the county has enrolled 440 acres.

This CREP program is especially important to Great Lakes' tributaries. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 100 native fish species use Great Lakes coastal wetlands as spawning, nursery, feeding and wintering habitat. However, more than two-thirds of the natural Great Lakes wetlands have been filled or drained for agriculture, urban use, recreation and more.

Dick Rost, DNR fisheries management technician, says buffers are critical to providing spawning habitat and ensuring reproductive success of northern pike.

In the 1980s, the northern pike population in Green Bay proper was declining and DNR began a project to follow the fish to find out where they were spawning. Researchers found that they spawn in wetlands and ephemeral streams sometimes located 15 miles upstream. The spawning act is stimulated by vegetation. Eggs attach to the vegetation, taking about two weeks to hatch. Small fry then become active, yet stay attached to vegetation for four or more days while they absorb the yolk sak. When they are about 20 mm long, they begin their journey back to Green Bay.

"We found that these critical spawning areas were being dramatically impacted by sediments and nutrients primarily associated with agriculture in the area," Rost says. "Because of the lack of grassy habitat, the areas were not able to be used for spawning."

Who can sign up and for how long?

Eligible producers will be able to enroll in 15-year contracts or for perpetuity. The applicant must be able to offer eligible acreage. Land must be cropland that has been cropped four out of six years (between 1996 and 2001) and that is physically and legally capable of being cropped. Some hayland may qualify. Marginal pastureland can also be eligible to be enrolled provided it is suitable for use as a riparian buffer. Those who have an existing contract under the federal Farm Bill or an approved offer with a contract pending are not eligible for CREP until that contract expires.

The following conservation practices may be eligible for CREP enrollment (consult with your local USDA Service Center representative to find out what practices are eligible for your CREP area and specific acreage):

  • establishment of permanent introduced grasses
  • establishment of permanent native grasses
  • grassed waterways
  • filter strips
  • riparian buffer
  • wetland restoration
  • rare and declining habitat
  • marginal pastureland wildlife habitat

"We need to get our message out to active farmers," says Susan Butler, conservation specialist for the Farm Service Agency. "There is a misconception that these buffers have to be 150 feet wide, but that's not the case. Buffer width depends on the slope, soil type and other site characteristics. We may need as little as 30 or 40 feet of buffer to make a big difference in water quality and good stewardship."

The financial incentives also are based on the soil types. They can vary from $6/acre for rough ground to $120/acre for prime farmlands.

Established buffers consist of a mix of trees, shrubs and plants that are native to the region and adapted to the site conditions.

DATCP has requested CREP expansion into Ashland, Bayfield, Douglas, and Iron counties. This would add sensitive lands that drain to Lake Superior.

Nancy Larson, DNR water resources management specialist in Ashland, has been involved in the discussions to extend the program to the Lake Superior basin.

"In the past, the Farm Bill Program wasn't used much here because the agricultural land doesn't meet the crop history requirements of the program – agricultural land here is mostly hay. CREP has different criteria, though, and allows marginal pastureland to be eligible where it wasn't before."

Soils in the area also are largely clay. Increased runoff is carving away stream banks and the ultimate goal is to stop this and reduce the amount of sediment entering the streams, Larson says.

Financial incentives

Wisconsin CREP participants are eligible for four types of USDA payments:

  1. Signing Incentive Payment – a one-time payment of up to $150 per acre for land enrolled in a riparian buffer practice, filter strip, or grassed waterway. USDA makes this payment soon after the contract has been signed.

  2. Practice Incentive Payment – payment equal to about 40 percent of the total cost for establishing the conservation practice. This payment is in addition to the 50 percent cost share assistance that USDA provides.

  3. Annual rental payment of about 135 to 160 percent of the dry land cash rental rate for the county in which the land is located. Annual rental payments are based on rate by soil types and slope and can range from about $20 to $185 per acre in Wisconsin.

  4. Cost share assistance for installing the conservation practices on retired land. Wisconsin will also offer one time lump sum incentive payments of 1.5 times the federal base rental rates for 15-year agreements and 12 times the federal rental rates for perpetual conservation easements. In addition, the state pays 20 percent of the cost to install conservation practices.

The total cost of the program (based on enrolling 100,000 acres in Wisconsin) is expected to reach $243 million over 15 years. Of that amount, $198 million will come from USDA and $45 million from the State of Wisconsin.

How does it work?

CREP is a partnership between resource managers and landowners. The Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers the program and the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service provides technical assistance, creating a conservation plan for the property and suggesting vegetation types for buffers.

The landowner's first contact is usually made with USDA. The FSA starts to determine the land's eligibility and crop history. They then turn over the technical determinations to NRCS and local land conservation district, which determine the necessary buffer width and review waterbodies involved.

The county land conservation departments then handle applications for the state. DATCP administers the state's portion of the program.

FSA reviews the soil type and calculates payment early in the process. It is tied to the annual rental rate and the state uses that as its basis for payment, too.

"The state has streamlined some of the paperwork by using the federal paperwork instead of duplicating efforts," says Keith Foye, chief of the land management section of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Some perpetual easements become complicated if a title search finds that an owner has mineral rights or there is a manure spreading easement. Landowners are not allowed to spread manure on CREP lands. Foye says it takes several months between the time application materials are filed to when the easement can be completed. Installing the buffers usually takes at least one growing season.

Foye says other partners in the program, including Trout Unlimited and Pheasants Forever, work directly with landowners to encourage sign-up and install buffers.

For more information

Contact your county USDA Service Center, Farm Service Agency local office, Soil and Water Conservation District, or Wisconsin State Department of Agriculture. Additional information is also available at:

Farm Service Agency

Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection

Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

Produced by: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Copyright 2005, Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources


Funded in part by: Wisconsin Coastal Management Program

Financial assistance for this project was provided by the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, as amended, administered by the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration pursuant to Grant #NA170Z2357 and the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program.

The Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, part of the Wisconsin Department of Administration, and overseen by the Wisconsin Coastal Management Council, was established in 1978 to preserve, protect and manage the resources of the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior Coastline for this and future generations.