Arkansas reforestation project gets $14.7M from USDA

State to focus on land near Lower Cache River watershed

Arkansas will get $14.7 million this coming federal fiscal year to fund the reforestation of part of the farming-heavy Delta where the land is too prone to flooding to plant crops, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday.

Arkansas' project was among 10 projects in 12 states approved for the 2016 Wetland Reserve Enhancement Partnership Project for a total of $44.6 million, according to a USDA news release. The program's aim is to protect, restore or enhance 15,000 acres of wetlands in critical watersheds. The program was authorized by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Arkansas received the largest amount of money among all states for its project near the Lower Cache River watershed -- the latest in years of conservation efforts in the region by federal, state and private partners in the watershed. Those efforts have addressed flooding, sediment in the rivers, erosion near the rivers and the restoration of wildlife habitat.

Earlier this year, many of the same partners helped secure more than $2 million in federal grants for restoring or enhancing wetlands.

"We have a good area to work in, and demand is high," said Jason Milks, Delta project manager at the Nature Conservancy in Arkansas.

State and private partners -- the Walton Family Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Arkansas Forestry Commission -- provided an additional $1 million in matching funds for the project announced Thursday.

The funds will be used to reforest parts of the Delta that were once forest land with bottomland hardwood trees, said Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. Also, where ditches or streams are on that land, he said, the partners would work to "restore the natural hydrology" so that the forests get the right amount of water.

Planting trees will help hold floodwaters, prevent sediment from reaching existing bodies of water and create wildlife habitat, Simon said.

When soybean crops took off several decades ago, much of the Delta forests were torn down for crops.

"But what many landowners say now is that some of the land that was there was too wet to farm properly," Simon said. "It shouldn't have been cleared. This puts forest back in those areas that were too wet."

Planting trees again where the land is unusable would help mitigate flooding issues and provide landowners with valuable forest for hunting and wildlife, Milks said.

"This is an opportunity for producers who have land that is marginally productive largely because it's flooding," Milks said.

The restoration project is voluntary, but for years dozens of landowners have applied for limited funds in similar projects in the Lower White River and Lower Cache River watersheds, Milks said. A watershed is an area of land that drains into a body of water.

About 486,000 acres of land in Monroe, Prairie and Woodruff counties near the Cache River would be eligible for the project, Milks said.

The funds will be made available to landowners to apply for them from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Landowners would sell their land to the federal government as an easement, allowing the government and its partners to complete the reforestation projects. The funds will be available for three years.

Metro on 07/08/2016