Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns today announced that USDA will soon offer re-enrollment and extensions of Conservation Reserve Program contracts protecting more than 28 million acres of agricultural lands. This announcement fulfills President Bush's commitment to help safeguard environmentally sensitive land benefiting farmers, ranchers, landowners, sportsmen and wildlife habitat.
"The Conservation Reserve Program is a priority for President Bush," Johanns said at the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation. "USDA has a long and proud history of partnering with our farmers, ranchers, timber producers and forest landowners and we are stepping-up our efforts to ensure wise stewardship of our natural resources."
Johanns also announced that USDA has made significant progress in three critical areas of conservation: protecting working farms, forests and ranches from development; restoring forest health; and recovering wetlands.
USDA's cooperative conservation programs are providing landowners with incentives to stay on the land, conserve our natural resources and prevent the loss of open space. Through the Forest Service's State and Private Forestry programs, more than 400 million acres of private forestland are protected. In the past 5 years, funding for the Forest Legacy Program has tripled and more than a million additional acres have been protected.
An additional $30 million is being made available for voluntary conservation programs as part of the NRCS Cost-Share Assistance Program. The funding consists of savings derived from state and national level projects and will now be dedicated to conservation payments. The NRCS Ranch Land Protection Program and Grassland Reserve Program have protected more than 300,000 acres of working farms and ranches as well as 300,000 acres of grasslands.
Through President Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative, USDA, along with other federal land management agencies, are working with local communities to reduce hazardous fuels and restoring fire-adapted ecosystems. Last year, the combined efforts of these federal agencies led to the treatment of a record 4.2 million acres.
The President's Wetlands Initiative will ensure one million acres of wetlands are regained in the next five years while protecting and improving another two million acres. During the past year alone, more than 800,000 acres of wetlands were restored, enhanced and increased through USDA's Wetlands Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program.
Johanns also announced that USDA will seek to broaden its use of new market incentives that encourage landowners to invest in the maintenance, creation and restoration of healthy ecosystems. He described a future where credits for clean water, greenhouse gases or wetlands can be traded as easily as a commodity such as corn. A Market-Based Environmental Stewardship Coordination Council will be created to ensure that a sound market-based approach to quantifying conservation services is developed.
USDA serves as a steward of the nation's 193 million acres of national forests and rangelands, while encouraging voluntary efforts to protect soil, water and wildlife on the 70 percent of America's lands that are in private hands. USDA administers more than 35 projects being highlighted at the conference, showcasing collaborative strategies that were successfully used to address conservation, natural resource and environmental issues. For more information about these projects, go tohttp://www.usda.gov/.