Farmland and forests comprise the landscape surrounding a river.
West Kentucky An aerial view of the Mississippi in western Kentucky © Mike Wilkinson

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Wetland Restoration Program a Win for Nature and Farmers

New acreage to be enrolled in NRCS WREP Program

Farmers can soon apply for conservation easements in western Kentucky and western Tennessee. These easements provide financial assistance to farmers who voluntarily take their frequently flooded lands out of agricultural use. The program benefits nature by restoring these wetland areas to bottomland hardwood forest and reconnecting the floodplain to the Mississippi River.

Eligible areas include the Obion River in Kentucky and Tennessee; the watersheds of Mayfield Creek, Obion Creek, and Bayou de Chien of western Kentucky; and the south fork of Obion River, Forked Deer, and North Fork Forked Deer areas of western Tennessee.

Building on a successful conservation program with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the goal is to enroll an additional 2,500 acres into the Wetland Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) in these areas, thanks to their high-priority ranking for critical wetland restoration. Restoring wetlands and re-connecting the floodplain yield water quality benefits for Kentuckians and Tennesseans, in addition to communities downstream.

“Floodplains provide multiple benefits of improving water quality, storing floodwater, and improving wildlife habitat,” says Shelly Morris, director of floodplain strategies for The Nature Conservancy’s Kentucky chapter. “There are always way more applications for easements than available funding. This new program will help address this shortage.”

The NRCS and The Nature Conservancy have worked together on the WREP program for more than a decade. The Conservancy provides private matching funds to unlock public funding through the NRCS, for an effective public-private partnership.

“This WREP represents a continuation of a partnership between NRCS and TNC which has been in place for over a decade,” says Reed Cripps, assistant state conservationist with NRCS in Kentucky. “Not only are we continuing the largest wetland restoration project in Kentucky’s history, but we’re now expanding our project scope to include Tennessee as well.”

Tennessee landowner Holt Shoaf has participated in the program with his own land. He is glad to see WREP expanding in his home state. “The additional acreage means more opportunity for landowners to retire areas that flood frequently and are no longer appropriate for farming,” says Shoaf. “We still own these lands and can enjoy them recreationally, and they’ll be restored to the wetlands we need to protect water quality. It really is a win-win for nature and people.”

For more information, farmers should visit their local NRCS office. After receiving applications for WREP funding, NRCS prioritizes frequently flooded farmlands that were historically wetlands. If you have frequently flooded cropland, you are encouraged to apply.

“This partnership enhances the locally driven process to better address critical wetland functions,” says Sheldon Hightower, NRCS state conservationist for Tennessee. “Continuing to leverage our partnership with The Nature Conservancy helps us continue the important work with producers to help recover the health of wetland ecosystems on working lands in Tennessee.”

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 75 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 38 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.