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Take a wetlands tour
0n a hot, dry day when many farmers are starting to get ready for harvest, Ray McCormick is more than happy to take time out to talk about wetlands conservation.
He jumps in his pickup and begins an afternoon-long tour of one of the largest wetlands protection efforts ever undertaken on private land in the U.S.
The tract is in Greene County, Indiana, about an hour’s drive from McCormick’s farm near Vincennes.
Beginning in 2005, with McCormick’s encouragement, the landowner of the property near Linton, Indiana, entered 7,200 acres into a permanent easement with the USDA. The wetland, now known as the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area, has become a dramatic demonstration of the power of wetlands to attract wildlife, to offer broad public benefits, and to provide a revenue stream to landowners.
McCormick’s tour starts with a little lesson about the former farm’s soils. The land is made up of a poorly drained Zipp soil type.
“For 100 years, they tried to farm it,” he says, kneeling down to look at the native wetlands plants it now produces. “They call it Zipp because that’s what it grew for crops,” he says with a laugh.
In 1990, McCormick was cited by Successful Farming magazine’s program, Farming in the Flyways, for conservation work on his farm. Practices he used then – and still does today – include flooding of bottomland fields after harvest for wildlife use, wetlands restorations, cover-crop use, and no-till. McCormick was the top winner in a program that recognized 168 farmers nationwide for their exemplary conservation work.
McCormick’s enthusiasm for conservation runs just as deep today. On every turn of the tour, he notes all the various benefits of the Goose Pond area – a fishing area here, a rare bird species nest over there.
“There’s an eastern box turtle,” he points out. “They’re in trouble.”
His narrative misses few details. He spots a patch of swamp milkweed, a wetlands plant that attracts bees. “Wetlands support the pollinators, which contribute to 70% of our food,” he says.
But McCormick doesn’t separate farming from nature. He spends time on the phone talking with his son about getting some machinery in order. He speaks at length about the importance of soil health in agriculture.
On his own farm, he tries to put every acre to its best use, using cover crops, no-till, and nutrient management on the cropland. His farm includes 2,000 acres of tillable land, 1,000 acres of woodlands, and 1,000 acres of wetlands.
A long campaign
After his recognition by the Farming in the Flyways program in 1990, McCormick began a long campaign to convince other farmers to join him in protecting and restoring wetlands, says Dave Hudak, a former National Fish and Wildlife Service employee.
Hudak contacted Successful Farming magazine about all the conservation work McCormick has accomplished since the Farming in the Flyways program.
In rolling up his sleeves for conservation, McCormick has taken on an array of chores – from operating bulldozers to handling the sometimes thorny politics of the issue.
“Ray’s worked with everybody, from farmers to USDA,” says Hudak. “Many farmers have come to him first for help with these projects.”
McCormick was a leading force in organizing the Goose Pond project –something that involved a fair amount of arm-twisting. He believes, though, that farmers can benefit from growing public interest in conservation.
“People support conservation, and they will pay for it,” he says.
While McCormick has lost count of how many wetlands he’s helped restore, he can certainly point to Goose Pond as the most significant.
Some 240 species of birds have been documented there. People have new places to fish, hunt, and hike. The town of Linton has begun a Goose Pond festival.
“Wildlife biologists have been trying to conserve that area since World War II,” Hudak says.
It took a farmer to finally help get the job done.
At one point in his Goose Pond tour, McCormick stands on a levee and stares across the landscape. He is asked how he feels about this project now – after all the politics and all the trips up here from his farm.
“This is what I spent six years of my life on,” he says. Then, he grows silent. He can’t find the words. It is apparent he feels this is something that matters more than he can say.
Conservation Success Story
The federal Wetland Reserve Program has involved more than 11,000 landowners who have enrolled some 2.3 million acres over the past 20 years. The main target of the WRP is agricultural lands subject to frequent flooding. Restorations provide benefits to water quality, wildlife habitat, flood protection, and more.
“The WRP is the greatest conservation program I’ve been involved with,” says Ray McCormick, a farmer who has used the program on his own land and in his efforts to encourage other landowners to get involved in wetlands protection and restoration.
The voluntary program offers landowners a permanent easement, 30-year contract, and cost sharing of 75% to 100% of the expense of the restoration. Easement payments are based on the lower of fair market value, an area cap rate, or an offer from the landowner. The property owner retains title to the land, as well as control of access and recreational uses.