Conservation partnerships help farmers, private landowners improve wetlands

Dan Hansen
Wetlands provide nesting habitat for waterfowl and habitat for a variety of other wildlife.

OSHKOSH – In Wisconsin and elsewhere, wetlands are often misunderstood and under-appreciated. Found where land and water meet, wetlands provide countless benefits to wildlife, landscapes and communities.

In Wisconsin, we’ve already lost half of our wetlands, and of the wetlands that remain in the state, 75 percent are owned by farmers and other private landowners, giving them a vital role in wetland protection and restoration.

Whether looking for permanent protection options or funding for a restoration project, there’s a program, publication, or group in Wisconsin that can help, according to Peter Ziegler director of habitat for the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, who has over 18 years of experience working in habitat restoration throughout the upper Midwest.

His work has included completing property analysis, providing technical assistance, securing permitting and cost sharing funds associated with habitat restoration projects for non-profits, government agencies and commercial businesses, for everything from small stream realignment to long-term site management.

Ziegler shared valuable information about the public agencies and private conservation organizations that can assist farmers and other private landowners during a presentation at the recent Wisconsin Waterfowl Expo.

“Wetlands are the most diverse ecosystems we have, and also one of the most threatened. So there’s a huge opportunity for restoration,” he said. “We know people are contacting conservation organizations as well as state and federal agencies, but often they’re contacting the wrong one and their project may not fit into that  agency’s program. I hope to provide information on where you should start your inquiry.”

Public, private partners

The major partners, according to Ziegler, are Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, U.S Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin DNR and county land conservation departments.

“These conservation organizations and government agencies have been working together for a very long time,” he said. “They’re very good at getting money from inside and outside of the state, from private organizations. There’s a lot of overlap with these agencies and organizations, but there’s also a lot of separation in what they do.”

Wildlife conservation groups all have chapters around the state that raise private dollars. There are grants available and these groups can apply for grants from the state DNR, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and from private foundations. “If they can raise money privately, they’re actually doubling effective use of that money when they apply for state and federal grants,” Ziegler said.

Landowners can often lose out on federal grants by not having projects properly organized. “Part of being organized is determining what they want to get out of the project, what they want to do with their property, and knowing who to contact to get permits and cost-share dollars,” Ziegler acknowledged.

Start with NRCS

Ziegler recommends that farmers contemplating wetland restoration start by contacting the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “If you’re a producer, financially, that’s probably the best choice for you. They have more restrictions with their contracts, but land that’s not farmed is where these other organizations can help,” he advised.

If you’re looking for a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) or wetland project, Pheasants Forever Farm Bill biologists are often the main point of contact,” he noted. “CRP is a soil and erosion control program to provide permanent vegetative cover, but some of that cover can be used for waterfowl nesting.”

Certain counties in the state can get additional funding from DATCP. “So you might be able to get more money for your project. “EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) doesn’t do a lot with wetlands but funding is available, and this is the one NRCS program where the land doesn’t have to be farmed,” he said.

NRCS Wetland Reserve Easements protect the most wetland acres in the state, according to Ziegler. “Normally these are perpetual easements, but you can also have a 30-year easement,” he noted. 

Peter Ziegler

For a permanent easement, NRCS pays 100 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the easement, plus between 75 to 100 percent of the restoration costs. On a 30-year easement NRCS pays 50 to 75 percent of the easement value for the purchase of the easement. 

Eligible for wetland reserve easements include farmed or converted wetlands that can be successfully and cost-effectively restored. “All these programs allow retaining ownership of the land and don’t require allowing any public use,” Ziegler added.

Consult a pro

“Have a professional take a look at any wetland restoration project you’re considering,” Ziegler advised. “Many times a photo of the land can be viewed online. Restoration hydrology is what everyone is really aiming toward because this is where you get the best, most true restoration.”

True hydrologic restorations include ditch fills and ditch plugs, disabling drainage tile lines, creating berm breaches that allow flood water into historic wetlands, and constructing highland berms to hold water longer.

Often cost sharing for projects is dependent on available dollars that year. “Sometimes if you catch us near the end of a two-year grant and we have funding available, you may actually get more funding than someone who contacted us in the first two months of the grant,” he acknowledged. 

In general, conservation groups have the most flexibility. “They aren’t as restricted by federal regulations, other than by the permit,” Ziegler said. “If the land is farmed NRCS and the Farm Bill biologists are generally the best place to start.” 

For smaller acreage a private conservation group might be a better choice. “Some conservation groups can actually help qualify projects for NRCS programs by providing technical assistance and design which takes a load off NRCS staff,” he said.

The nonprofit Wisconsin Waterfowl Association is dedicated to the conservation of Wisconsin’s waterfowl and wetland resources. The staff works closely with landowners to facilitate restoration, enhancement, management of wetlands and associated uplands from an ecological perspective.

WWA accepts project applications and raises funds to cost-share wetland conservation projects throughout Wisconsin. They also work with federal and state wildlife agencies on Wisconsin wetland and waterfowl issues. Learn more about Wisconsin Waterfowl Association.