Glendening commits $10 million to program to protect Chesapeake

Farmers will be paid to plant trees, not crops, to create forest buffers

February 18, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening committed an additional $10 million yesterday to rescue Maryland's troubled project to help restore the Chesapeake Bay by paying farmers to plant trees and grasses rather than crops on 100,000 acres near streams.

The money will provide one-time signing bonuses of $100 per acre to encourage reluctant farmers to join the program. The bonuses would be retroactive for farmers enrolled, said Jeff Horan, co-chairman of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program's advisory committee.

Although the program is environmentally sound, it didn't make economic sense to many farmers to take land out of production and replant it with trees and grasses, Horan said. The bonuses "make it economically feasible," he said.

Sarah Taylor-Rogers, state secretary of natural resources, told Glendening in October that he should create a $6 million fund for bonuses and seek more cooperation from federal partners to save the program.

Glendening said yesterday that the program benefits farmers by giving them "value for the lands they set aside" and helps the environment by creating natural buffers for protecting streams. He called the money an "investment in the future of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary streams."

Forest buffers protect water quality in the bay and its tributaries by capturing and filtering nutrient-rich runoff from farm fields. Scientists have blamed nutrients for degrading the water quality and fueling fish kills.

If the program reaches its goal of creating 100,000 acres of buffers, it would remove annually 5,750 tons of nitrogen, 550 tons of phosphorus and 200,000 tons of sediment from the bay and its tributaries, said John Surrick, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

The governor made his announcement as a state conservation group, Future Harvest-Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Southern States Cooperative began publicity campaigns for the program.

Future Harvest is mailing literature to more than 30,000 owners of agricultural land, and distributing videos to television outlets. Southern States, a farmer-owned cooperative, will post displays at its retail locations.

The program is an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program, which has paid farmers since 1985 to take land out of production for 10 to 15 years.

During the first 12 years, Maryland farmers signed up for 14,000 acres. In 1997, state and federal officials created the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, the first effort in the nation to attract more farmers by offering larger sums from a combination of sources.

State farmers have placed about 15,000 acres in the program since then, and a DNR analysis last fall found that the best that could be expected by the end of the five-year effort was 43,000 acres.

"That was if we did nothing else," Horan said. "All that opportunity would have been wasted. This gives us a real, fighting chance."

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