MONTPELIER — Farmers can get cash for their land if it’s deemed valuable for wetland conservation, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Over the last two years, over 30,000 acres of wetlands have been restored and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is now the primary owner, through the Wetland Acquisition and Restoration Program.
At its core, the program is intended to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain and the blooming of cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae in areas of the lake, but the newly strengthened and enriched land will also provide improved habitats for wildlife and healthier water systems for the public to utilize, including for hunting, fishing, and bird watching.
“(The process is) entirely private,” said Department of Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter. “It’s all willing seller and buyer. We’re going to farms and saying ‘we will buy this land that should be restored to wetlands, and we will pay you for it.’”
Porter said the money used in acquiring the land is derived directly from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and benefits the Lake Champlain Basin program. Funds are then directed by a wetland steering committee staffed by members of the Department of Environmental Conservation and Vermont Fish & Wildlife.
The lands in question are assessed for size, cost and feasibility to restore, proximity to wetlands and other protected lands, possible success for phosphorus retention and potentiality for water quality improvement should the project be pursued.
Priority of the projects is decided based on how the wetland acquisition project stands to benefit animals, fish, habitats, wildlife crossings, habitat connectivity and ecological impact, according to the department.
“This is a natural fit to expand and build upon some of our marquis Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), such as Dead Creek WMA, and it will enable us to strategically enhance other WMAs,” said Jane , public land section chief for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The program has received $2.1 million from the EPA so far, and has spent $458,500 up to this point.
Ongoing projects may incur further restoration costs that Porter said can come from other sources of funding.
The idea behind the initiative, which was created in collaboration with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was to dually benefit farmers and the environment in annexing portions of land to allow natural processes to thrive.
According to Conservation International, wetlands provide filtration systems for the water that runs through them, replenish natural aquifers and provide buffer zones during flood events, in addition to providing a natural habitat to nearly half of the country’s 800 species of migratory birds.
The EPA compared wetlands to rainforests and coral reefs, citing them as being among the most productive ecosystems in the world, and more than one-third of the country’s threatened and endangered species live in wetlands.
“Several strategic wetland acquisitions were completed this year under the new initiative,” Lazorchak said. “With the purchase of five separate parcels, we added 511 acres to four of our largest wetland-based wildlife management areas (WMAs) in the Champlain Valley, including the Rock River, Intervale, Dead Creek and East Creek WMAs.”
Farmers and landowners have every ability to say no to the proposal to buy their land, Porter said, and sometimes it’s just not the right time to sell.
“Often, it works as a business matter to sell right now,” Porter said. “This is entirely willing seller and buyer transactions.”
The projects are continuously tracked and measured to make sure the efforts to restore the wetland are resulting in significant nutrient differences in the soil, water and air.
“We want to create the ability for nature to solve some of the problems we create,” Porter said.
The Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, the Connecticut River Watershed Farmer’s Alliance and the Franklin and Grand Isle Farmer’s Watershed Alliance are hosting their annual meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27, at 6 p.m., according to a release.
The meeting will feature updates, resources for farmers, the launch of new educational programming and a social media outreach event due for the spring of 2021.
Interested parties may review the agenda and register by visiting https://cvfc-vt.com/events/.