The Wetlands Reserve Program is near death in Arkansas and other Southern states, according to an official with Ducks Unlimited’s 11-state southern region.

DU says the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the federal agency that administers the farm bill conservation program, is getting few takers since the program’s appraisal valuation process changed in 2006.

The modifications lowered easement payment offers to landowners, causing a decline in acceptance rates. Since the modified appraisal process went into effect, WRP enrollment has dropped from an annual average of more than 16,000 acres to just 528 acres accepted by only three landowners in 2006.

Ken Babcock, with Ducks Unlimited’s southern regional office in Jackson, Miss., says the lack of interest should be addressed in the 2007 farm bill. “The future of wintering waterfowl habitat in the South depends on WRP paying farmers, ranchers and other landowners a fair price to restore inferior cropland back to the wetlands it once was.

“Waterfowl and Arkansas duck hunters are in big trouble if we lose this program. This federally funded program plays a critical role in helping DU accomplish our conservation mission through restoring wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests on private lands.”

The WRP is a voluntary program in the conservation provisions of the federal farm bill that provides landowners with technical assistance and financial incentives to convert flood-prone, marginal agricultural land to former wetland conditions and seasonally flooded forests.

DU works with the NRCS and private landowners to implement the WRP. The program helps landowners protect soil and water resources, as well as establish long-term conservation of wildlife habitat.

DU has made the WRP one of its highest priorities for the 2007 farm bill. It says that in addition to changes in the appraisal process, additional funding will be required to meet the full potential of farm bill conservation provisions and the needs of farmers and ranchers. The organization seeks to maintain at least 250,000 acres in WRP annually.