State officials are looking to east Arkansas farmers for support of a conservation program that would help the rare ivory-billed woodpecker make a comeback in that area.
Under the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, farmers in parts of Woodruff, Monroe, and Prairie counties stand to share up to $10 million in federal money through soil rental rates, a signing incentive payment and up to 90 percent cost-share for putting in place certain conservation practices, like planting hardwood trees, creating riparian forest buffers and restoring wetlands.
Such practices are geared toward nurturing the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was sighted for the first time in 60 years in the bottomlands of east Arkansas last spring.
Becky McPeake, wildlife specialist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, says those spearheading the program are being careful to maintain a balance of cropland and habitat for the woodpecker in the counties identified under the program.
McPeake says there may be a cap on the amount of farmland acreage that will be eligible for the program.
And while some farmers seem concerned that they won't be able to continue agricultural practices they have relied on in the past because of state and federal efforts to protect the ivory-billed woodpecker, McPeake points out that CREP is a voluntary program.
Many argue, though, that the program creates a win-win situation for farmers and conservationists because it allows farmers to benefit financially by retiring marginal farmland while encouraging conservation practices that benefit endangered species, including the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Public input is a required part of the CREP proposal process. The CREP, under the federal Conservation Reserve Program, requires a 20 percent non-federal match and must be initiated by non-federal agencies or organizations. Among the agencies involved in initiating the Arkansas proposal are the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the Nature Conservancy, Winrock International, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Ducks Unlimited, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Arkansas Forestry Commission.