A Bay Journal article (2019-05-29) reported that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will reopen signups for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) after an 8-month freeze. CREP, which has proven to be a key program in Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts, subsidizes farmers to replace cropland or marginal pastureland with native vegetation or forested stream buffers.
In return for planting trees or other vegetation to enhance and protect water quality, CREP provides annual payments through 10- or 15- year contracts. Farmers can also receive a signing bonus and assistance with the buffer’s design and installation costs.
Despite the important role CREP has played in Maryland and many other Bay watershed states, the article noted that inconsistent federal funding had made it harder to recruit participants. From the article:
“Landowners get discouraged,” said Anne Hairston-Strang, associate director of the Maryland Forest Service, in early April, when it was unclear how long the latest holdup would last. “It makes the program seem less reliable, less trustworthy.”
The latest interruption came at a crucial time, advocates said. The federal-state Chesapeake Bay Program has long had a goal of planting 900 miles of riparian buffers annually, but in 2017 the Bay states only planted 56 miles’ worth.
The program was suspended at the end of September when the 2014 Farm Bill expired, leaving some farmers frustrated because their enrollments had not been completed. Congress passed new authorizing legislation nearly three months later, and President Trump signed it into law Dec. 20.
The article also noted the challenge Bay states face in keeping existing buffers planted once current CREP contracts expire. According to the article, roughly 3,500 acres of CREP protected buffers in the six Bay watershed states are set to expired at the end of this September, including acres in Maryland. The vast majority of these buffers, 2,000 acres, are in Pennsylvania, which continues to struggle to meet its pollution reduction goals under the Chesapeake Total Maximum Daily Load.