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Saving the Bay, Conserving Rare Birds

The Pennsylvania Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program

The Chesapeake Bay is one of America’s Great Waters. This 64,000-square-mile watershed covers parts of six states: Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The Bay is polluted by nitrogen, phosphorus, bacteria, and pesticides. The pollution comes from a variety of sources, but the number one source is runoff from intensive crop and livestock production in the watershed. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says “nitrogen pollution is the number one threat to Bay health,” causing problems for blue crabs, clams, bluefish, seahorses and a host of other fish and wildlife that depend on the waters of the Bay.

The resulting loss of aquatic vegetation has also contributed to a substantial reduction in the number of ducks and geese that use the Bay’s waters.

Pennsylvania launched its Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program in 2000 to reduce farm runoff in the Susquehanna and Potomac River watersheds, the primary tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay.

The program has also provided habitat that resulted in a substantial increase in native grassland bird populations that have been in sharp decline.

Targeting 20 counties in South Central Pennsylvania, the program offers 10 or 15 year contracts to farmers willing to take cropland out of production and plant buffer strips. The buffer strips capture sediment, nutrients and agrichemicals before they reach nearby streams. The program pays farmers to restore wetlands, install fences to keep livestock out of streams, and plant native warm-season grasses along streams that also benefit native birds.

The program was launched with $210 million in funding from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency, and the state of Pennsylvania. Through the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), farmers receive 10-15 year contracts to install conservation practices. In return, they receive an annual rental payment based on local rental rates for similar land. They also receive a one-time federal payment for half the cost of planting the grass or trees, and a $5 per acre annual maintenance payment.

Adding state funds lets the landowner receive 100% reimbursement for planting costs, plus bonus payments for high-value practices.

Pennsylvania’s CREP started in 2000 with an initial target of 100,000 acres, and within two years over 90,000 acres had been enrolled. In 2003, the program was expanded to 23 more counties in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and then to 16 counties in the Ohio River basin a year later. By April, 2008, over 194,000 acres had been enrolled in the program, including nearly 172,000 in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“The Pennsylvania Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program is one of the largest private lands conservation programs in Pennsylvania history,” says Scott Klinger of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, one of the project partners.
Pennsylvania now has more acres enrolled in the CREP than any other state. Landowners receive $21 million in annual rental payments, averaging over $105 per acre per year.

Conservation Benefits

More than 38,000 acres of native warm-season grass have been established. More than 1,800 miles of forest stream-side buffers have been planted. The result has been measurable increases in local populations of key wildlife species.

Research by Penn State University has shown that bird nesting success is higher in CREP fields than in nearby hay fields, and CREP fields showed a greater diversity of nesting birds. Sensitive species like the eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, and Savannah sparrow have benefited as a result.

Cottontail rabbits also used the CREP fields, especially where they are near wooded areas.

One of Pennsylvania’s key goals is to improve water quality by reducing nitrogen and phosphorus loadings to the Susquehanna and Potomac rivers. Overall, the six states hope to reduce the Bay’s nitrogen and phosphorus load by about one-third between 2000 and 2010.

The Pennsylvania CREP was created as a tool to reduce nutrient loadings in the watershed, but is just one part of a broad strategy. Under that strategy, Pennsylvania landowners are required to adopt nutrient and manure management plans, the state has developed River Conservation Plans, and industries and sewage treatment plans are required to meet new discharge standards.

Cooperation a Key

The USDA Farm Service Agency provides the bulk of the funds and administration for the program, through Conservation Reserve Program contracts. To date, more than $500 million has been earmarked for the program by USDA, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and other partners.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission provided funds through a contribution agreement with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service that paid for 18 wildlife habitat biologists, stationed in USDA offices across the state. The biologists helped landowners with conservation planning and enrollment. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has six buffer specialists, assisting farmers and communities throughout Pennsylvania to plan and establish buffers.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) provides Growing Greener funds to match federal cost-share payments for eligible conservation practices. The payments are administered through the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts. DEP has already invested $27 million in buffers through the program.

Ducks Unlimited provided additional cost-share for landowners who installed riparian forest buffers, and assisted with outreach to landowners. The Ducks Unlimited Habitat Stewardship Program helped fill gaps by providing services to landowners not eligible for other programs.

The Western Pennsylvania conservancy and Chesapeake Bay Foundation jointly operate a toll free hotline to provide information on the program (1-800-941-CREP). Information is also posted on web pages of the various partner agencies and organizations, including

This is one of a series of Conservation Success Stories published by National Wildlife Federation with support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

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