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State attempting to establish first wetlands mitigation bank for agriculture in the nation

Brian Top. (Matt Gade/Republic)

South Dakota could become the first state in the nation to establish a wetland mitigation credit system directed solely at farmers.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service's wetland mitigation bank proposal would serve as a platform for farmers and producers to connect with conservationists to essentially trade wetlands credits.

The proposal, which is currently under review for approval, would help eliminate concerns created by the "Swampbuster" provisions introduced in the 1985 Farm Bill to protect wetlands from drainage on cropland. If producers do not comply with the Swampbuster provisions, which require producers to replace any drained wetlands, they lose eligibility to United States Department of Agriculture benefits.

If approved, the statewide plan directed at producers would be the first of its kind in the nation and would serve as an example for other states. Both Gov. Dennis Daugaard and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Secretary Kelly Hepler supported the plan to bring producers and conservationists together.

"We know that developments can happen, in particular with some of these wetlands," Hepler said. "And this gives us a chance really to — in a big way — have some of these corn (growers) and some of these major producers buy in to the wetland concept, and it's a neat idea."

According to the framework of the program, the state's wetland mitigation banking system would help boost the habitat of migratory birds and other resident wildlife in South Dakota while also restoring a diverse set of wetlands throughout the state.

The project was established through a collaborative effort from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), agricultural groups and wildlife and conservation groups. After receiving a $75,000 grant from the NRCS, Dakota Wetlands Partners' Brian Top began drawing up the framework of the pilot program.

Through the program, interested parties would be able to restore, enhance or create wetlands on their property in return for funds from farmers who want to drain their wetlands to generate higher crop yields. Producers would do this by requesting to convert a wetland with the NRCS and acquire a bank sponsor to review the credit request before receiving NRCS approval. Top, who is based in Sioux Falls, said the wetland would be monitored for three to five years to prove it is functioning correctly and maintained in perpetuity.

The program, which awaits legal approval, was established about 18 months ago. Top said the involved parties took about a year to develop and six to eight public meetings were conducted to hear additional input. Through these meetings, Top said some landowners have already expressed interest in creating wetlands on their property.

Top said the established wetlands have to have hydric soil and plants, meaning they contain high amounts of moisture, and be wet for 50 percent of the year. Examples of hydric plants are cattails and bulrush.

While Top said this program would not increase the amount of wetlands, he said the replacement wetlands would likely be of a higher quality than those on cropland being routinely tilled and receiving fertilizer applications.

"They're going to be permanently protected because of the easement that we're going to put on them, so these are going to be high functioning, good quality wetlands," Top said.

As part of the proposal, Top said any replacement wetlands must be created within the same watershed area as the wetland being replaced. For example, a farmer in the Lower James Watershed interested in removing a wetland from their property must have the wetland replaced within the same watershed. Top said there are approximately 15 watersheds in the state, and credits to establish wetlands have already been lined up in five.

Top said the NRCS has sent the proposal to Washington, D.C. to receive legal approval from the Office of General Counsel, which acts as the project's final hurdle. He anticipates the plan can commence soon after.

"I'm hopeful that maybe within a half a year we'll actually be trading credits, but we've got a little bit of work to do yet," Top said.