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Program will help to restore cropland

DELTA, Ohio - A federally funded conservation grant program is now open to landowners in parts of four counties, including most of Fulton and parts of Lucas and Ottawa counties, who are willing to help restore native plants on existing cropland to create habitat for endangered species.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency, in conjunction with county soil and water conservation agencies and other local groups, hopes to enroll 11,600 acres across Ohio crop land in the habitat-restoration program.

Participating landowners receive a signing bonus and annual rent, along with cost-sharing for expenses related to restoring natural vegetation and wetlands characteristics to land formerly cultivated. But access to the property must be allowed for monitoring, and participants are obliged to plant grass and wildflower seeds and to hire contractors to plant trees and re-contour the land as needed to fulfill a restoration plan.

"About four years in, we typically check to see how much progress has been made," said Mike Degens, the Western Lake Erie Basin conservationist for the Farm Service Agency.

Species expected to benefit from restoring oak savanna, native grassland, and wetlands in Fulton and western Lucas counties include the Karner blue butterfly, ring-necked pheasant, wood duck, and American bald eagle. Wetlands also provide natural filtering for water that may be consumed by people.

The eligible area includes Chesterfield, Clinton, Dover, Fulton, Pike, Royalton, Swan Creek, and York townships in Fulton County, and Harding, Monclova, Providence, Richfield, Spencer, Springfield, Swanton, Sylvania, and Waterville townships in Lucas County, plus cropland in the city of Maumee.

A meeting explaining the program has been scheduled for March 25, starting at 6 p.m., at the Robert Fulton Agricultural Service Center on State Rt. 108 north of Wauseon, across from the Fulton County Fairgrounds. Pre-registration is required, with a March 23 deadline, and must be made by telephone to 419-337-9217.

In Jerusalem Township and northern Ottawa County, the same program is offered to promote restoration of lake front wetland habitat. The eligible Ottawa County townships are Allen, Bay, Benton, Clay, Danbury, Erie, Portage, and Salem.

Conservation leases are offered as 10 to 15 year contracts, with the landowner retaining title. Rent for a particular tract of land varies depending on the total acreage and the soil types involved, Mr. Degens said.

"It's still your land. You can hunt it, or walk on it. But you can't have trails for dirt biking" or similar activities, he said.

To be eligible, land must have been cultivated for at least four years between 1996 and 2001, and must have been under current ownership for at least one year. Sign-ups will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until the acreage goal has been reached.

Mr. Degens said his agency's goal is to attract, in particular, the farmers whose cropland is less productive than average. The program's compensation package is robust enough to be comparable with the net income farming would produce, he said.

Those interested in participating in the program should contact Mr. Degens by telephone at 419-337-9670 or by e-mail at mdegens@williamsswcd.org.

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