Just before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly announced an additional 86,000 SAFE acres across seven states: Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. These acres are a boon to private landowners and sportsmen. But I’d wager that most hunters and anglers, and probably many farmers and ranchers, don’t know what SAFE is or just how beneficial the program can be.
For the unfamiliar, SAFE— State Acres For Wildlife Enhancement —is part of the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. The general CRP asks landowners to voluntarily conserve large tracts of previously cropped land to achieve a wide range of environmental benefits. As a part of CRP, SAFE is also a voluntary land conservation program, but here USDA works with landowners, state and federal agencies, non-profit organizations and the public to identify strategic projects that conserve land in specific parts of the country. SAFE distinctively focuses on habitat for species that are threatened or endangered, have suffered significant population declines or are considered to be socially or economically valuable.
That last phrase, “socially or economically valuable,” is key for sportsmen. SAFE authorizes your local decision makers to identify which acres will best target the needs of “high-value” wildlife, and that includes for hunting and fishing. SAFE projects have provided habitat for the plains sharp-tailed grouse, sage grouse, American woodcock, northern bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasant, a wide variety of waterfowl, cottontail rabbits, black bears, mule deer, elk, salmon, steelhead trout and many other species, across 36 states and in Puerto Rico. That’s nothing to shake a tail at.
Landowners can benefit from SAFE too especially at a time when crop prices are low and land prices are high. USDA offers a signing incentive of $100 per acre to landowners who convert idle cropland into SAFE; pays landowners up to 90 percent of the cost of planting trees, forbs and grasses that benefit wildlife; and provides guaranteed rental payments on that land for the length of a contract, usually for 10 to 15 years. SAFE can improve farm income while incentivizing on-the-ground practices that benefit our favorite critters on an ecosystem-wide scale.
Although the extra 86,000 acres comprise only a fraction of the 24 million acres enrolled in CRP, at the TRCP we were thrilled by USDA’s announcement. Since SAFE’s introduction in 2007, many states have maxed out their allotted acres and maintain waiting lists for landowners hoping to enroll stream buffers, restored wetlands, newly seeded grasslands and longleaf pine stands in the program. The TRCP welcomes any additional chances to provide habitat for fish and wildlife and access for sportsmen.
Landowners can enroll qualified acres in a designated wildlife project in their state at any time. We especially encourage those in the seven states listed above to take advantage of this new opportunity. For more information, visit www.fsa.usda.gov/conservation or visit a local USDA office.