Restoration plan for bay may fall short

State not expected to meet 5-year goal

`Urgent action is needed'

Too many groups, regulations blamed

November 12, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Maryland's groundbreaking $200 million project to help restore the Chesapeake Bay by planting trees and grasses on farmland near streams will fall short of its goal by more than half.

State and federal agencies set out in 1997 to pay Maryland farmers to replace 100,000 acres of crops near streams with buffer zones of forests, grasses or wetlands. Farmers have put only 13,000 acres into the program, and a state Department of Natural Resources analysis shows that the best they can expect by the end of the five-year effort is 43,000 acres.

The program, an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, has been slow to start partly because of the unwieldy number of organizations involved -- eight state and three federal agencies, five conservation groups and four individual landowners.

"That many partnerships is going to be complex," says Jeff Horan, co-chairman of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program's advisory committee.

Buffer zones of grass and trees protect streams and rivers in the bay's watershed from nutrient-rich run-off from farm fields. Scientists have blamed nutrients for declining water quality and fueling Pfiesteria piscicida, a fish-killing microbe.

"This is a great opportunity, but if we continue on the track we're on, we're not going to be able to take advantage of it," says Horan.

Beginning in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers to take land out of production for 10 to 15 years. But it has focused on the Midwest, where large farms exist, and is not attractive to East Coast farmers, who are under greater development pressure.

During the first 12 years, Maryland farmers signed up for 14,000 acres.

Then in 1997, Maryland joined federal officials to create the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, a first-in-the-nation effort to attract more farmers by offering more money from a combination of sources, including state and federal agencies as well as private conservation groups.

The acreage placed in the program since 1997 nearly matches that of the previous 12 years, but isn't enough.

"Urgent action is needed if Maryland is to meet its goal," said Sarah Taylor Rogers, state secretary of natural resources, in an Oct. 22 letter to Gov. Parris N. Glendening obtained by The Sun.

Glendening should get more cooperation from its federal partners, give farmers more money, create a $6 million fund to pay first time bonuses and increase the amount of land eligible for the program, she said.

Other states have plans

Since Maryland drafted its program, other states have come up with similar plans that seem more promising, Rogers said in an interview.

"When you're the first, sometimes you don't always think of all the pieces you would like to include in the program," said Rogers. "What we would like to do is talk with federal agencies to increase acreage and allow more flexibility, the things that we see our counterparts doing."

Glendening is out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

While the program is environmentally sound, it has to make economic sense to farmers, says Horan of the advisory committee. "You gotta make them come running for it."

Complex program

The program has too many rules, says Virgil L. Shockley, a Worcester County Commissioner who farms 300 acres near Snow Hill.

"They've taken something that could be very simple and thrown page after page after page of regulations at it," he complains. It's better for farmers to put their land in the state's rural legacy program, which pays farmers to keep farming their land.

"It goes against our nature as farmers to leave a certain field sit there and just grow up," says Shockley.

Committee members say Conservation Reserve Enhancement hasn't had the money to effectively market the program to reluctant farmers.

"What we're asking farmers to do is to gerrymander their farms," says Jim Farmer a Charles County lawyer with extensive holdings in Southern Maryland and a member of the program's advisory board.

In recent months, the program staff has arranged grants and partnership deals with conservation groups such as Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Ducks Unlimited to "do more aggressive marketing things," says Louise Lawrence, of the state department of agriculture.

"We've done work with the local soil conservation districts, and we're going to do direct mail," she says. "And for those who don't call us, we'll call them."

Optimistic view

The state also has opened centers in Howard, Kent and Washington counties for face-to-face contact with farmers, says Lawrence. "If they're successful, we can expand it incrementally."

Despite the predictions, Rogers remains optimistic about reaching the goal.

"I'm not going to be satisfied with `we can't' because I think we can," she says.

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