State to get $200 million for bay plan Federal pilot project will pay to convert farmland to wetlands

Up to 100,000 acres

Voluntary program designed to reduce agricultural runoff

October 18, 1997|By Ted Shelsby and Michael Dresser | Ted Shelsby and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer David Folkenflik contributed to this article.

Maryland will receive $200 million in federal funds to convert up to 100,000 acres of farms and other land to forests and wetlands in an effort to help preserve the Chesapeake Bay, a spokeswoman for Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest said yesterday.

Taking erosion control to an innovative next step, the bay plan will be a pilot project. It is the first in the nation under the U.S. Agriculture Department's new Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, said Cathy Bassett, press secretary for the 1st District Republican.

Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to announce details of the program Monday on a farm near Centreville in Queen Anne's County, where he will be joined by Gilchrest, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Sen. Paul A. Sarbanes, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and other officials.

The funds will be allocated over a period of perhaps as many as 10 years. The program will pay farmers to voluntarily take cropland out of production, to construct buffer zones between farmland and streams, and to take other steps to protect waters running into the bay from agricultural runoff.

The announcement comes at a time when public attention has been focused on farm pollution issues because of the connection scientists have drawn between nutrient runoff and fish-killing toxic outbreaks of the microbe Pfiesteria piscicida.

The program is designed to help reduce runoff by making it financially feasible for farmers to turn farmland into wetlands and forests, which act as natural filters of nutrients that might otherwise find their way to the water.

In a news release, Sarbanes called the program "perhaps the most important step we can take to restore the water quality and natural habitat of our nation's greatest estuary."

Bassett said Gilchrest, who was at a speaking engagement last evening, was particularly pleased by the voluntary nature of the program.

"The congressman has always been in favor of voluntary incentive programs versus mandatory regulations. It's two different approaches to achieving the same goal," Bassett said.

It will be a statewide program, said a Maryland official, but initially it will be centered on the Eastern Shore, where intensive farming has been linked with some of the problems affecting the bay.

Tom Grasso, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the pilot program is an enhancement of an existing U.S. Agriculture Department program that has concentrated on taking farmland out of production to prevent soil erosion.

The new approach, authorized in the 1996 farm bill, applies more broadly to protecting ecosystems in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Chesapeake Bay region, he said.

"This will give a substantial boost to our efforts to restore habitat in the Chesapeake Bay area," Grasso said. "We don't have enough of the resource land -- the forest, the wetlands -- to take up those nutrients before they hit the water's edge."

Funds will be used to acquire buffer strips of land along waterways. The emphasis is on farms, although many waterfront properties that drain into streams are expected to be eligible.

The program will be administered by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources.

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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