Protecting an endangered turtle, an endangered rabbit and a lot of imperiled wetlands – not to mention drinking water – is the goal of a new $1.6 million federal award to protect areas in Southeastern New Hampshire, including the Merrimack River watershed, as part of a federal program.
“This is an incredibly popular program. We had set aside $15 million (for national projects) in the spring, but there was three times the demand, so we raised it to $44 million,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Wednesday, in announcing Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program awards in 12 states.
The federal award in New Hampshire must be matched by $400,000 from the lead partner, the Southeast Land Trust, which preserves property in Rockingham and Strafford counties. It target the watersheds of the lower Merrimack River and the Salmon Falls River, a tributary of the Piscataqua that forms the state border with Maine from Rochester to Dover.
“Overall, there’s the umbrella that we are serving two of the most threatened watersheds in the United States,” said Duane Hyde, land conservation director for the land trust.
Hyde said the award would allow the organization to protect about 500 acres of wetlands, floodplains, riparian areas and forests, via purchase of wetlands conversation easements through 2017-18. The money can also support restoration work through the National Resources Conservation Service through 2020.
The project is designed to keep wetlands out of development so they can help improve water quality and reduce soil erosion, and also to preserve habitat for the Blanding’s turtle and the New England cottontail, two species that are designated as endangered by the state.
Vilsack said that protecting endangered species can have a counter intuitive benefit of aiding development elsewhere. If populations rise, the species may be removed from the endangered list, he said, so that if they show up on other property, they won’t lead to stringent regulations being placed against development.
Preserving wetlands, he added, can also “improve hunting and fishing opportunities.”
As for SELT, the grant is welcome because, like most land trusts, it usually raises money to target a project at a time, generally when a parcel becomes available.
“This affords us some flexibility, to be pro-active and approach (landowners) in advance,” Hyde said.
The grants are part of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which is itself part of the massive federal farm bill.
“We’re the primary funder of private land conservation programs in the country,” Vilsack said. He said that roughly $29 billion has been paid out by the program over the years.
Since 2009, he said, $154 million has been awarded in conservation projects in New Hampshire.
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or email@example.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)