- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A proposal that’s under federal review would establish a wetland mitigation credit system that could benefit farmers in South Dakota.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced late last month that it’s putting $9 million toward a new wetland mitigation program in an effort to distribute the mitigation dollars between state and local governments and private parties.

The wetland mitigation bank proposal, which aims to spur conservation innovation nationwide, would be a platform for farmers to connect with conservationists to essentially trade wetlands credits. Provisions in the 1985 Farm Bill have meant farmers who drained wetlands would lose eligibility for Department of Agriculture benefits unless they found a way to mitigate for the loss.

Under the proposal, farmers would drain wetlands on their property and buy acre-for-acre credits in the bank, where high-quality wetlands within the same watershed are protected from development or drainage by permanent easements, to offset the habitat losses.

A similar model has been used by developers, cities and states for years, but such a program for farmers has been slow to arrive, leaving them unable to drain wetlands without losing eligibility for Department of Agriculture benefits.

Programs like a nearly-completed effort to create an agriculture-focused wetlands mitigation bank in South Dakota and existing efforts in Minnesota and Iowa can help other states to balance agriculture and environmental protection, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“Our producers and farmers and ranchers need tools to have the flexibility to do what’s right for their operations, but at the same time to do what’s right for the environment,” Vilsack said.

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he’s pleased with the work being done toward creating the wetland bank.

The proposal’s trading framework is currently being reviewed by federal officials.

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